We needed the benefits of a social society which should supplement our College and Society training, by helping us to make the important acquisition of being able to think on our feet without the aids of retirement, pen and paper—and especially to express at the moment whatever opinion we might have on any given topic.

—George Ingersoll Wood (in 1885) about 1832


Since the formation of Yale’s first “secret society” of seniors followed so soon after the elimination of the oath and rituals of secrecy in the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and it seems not to have been the result of sour grapes when friends were not elected,1 it must be accepted that the attraction of a secret brotherhood was too strong for some undergraduates to give up completely. Let us examine how, in the words of the biographer of Henry Stimson (class of 1888, Skull and Bones), those young men “constructed in the senior societies, with admirable insight, a mechanism to mobilize the emotions of the selected few to their high purposes. . . . Such special election produces no doubt a sense of large responsibility; the compression of the secret can generate great energy.”2

In 1832, New Haven contained about eleven thousand people, while the state capital Hartford’s population was only about eight thousand. Beyond the college, the business of making carriages was the town’s leading industry, supported by suppliers of leather and electroplated “coach lace,” and the American South was the principal market. For shopping in that market, and less humid weather, Southern families came north and spent the summer in New Haven and other New England towns.3 Andrew Jackson was president of the United States, visiting the Yale campus in 1833, and John C. Calhoun (Yale 1804, Phi Beta Kappa) was vice president. Twenty-five states made up the Union.

The Reverend Jeremiah Day (class of 1795, Phi Beta Kappa) was in the fifteenth year of his Yale College presidency, not to sign his last diplomas until the graduation of the class of 1846. The class as defined under the college laws—whether freshmen, sophomores, junior sophisters, or senior sophisters—was already named after the normal year of graduation, unlike the English college system at Oxford and Cambridge, where one’s particular college identity was paramount. The “friendly sentiment uniting the brotherhood,” as Day’s successor President Timohty Dwight was to call this class feeling, was already patent. President Noah Porter was to write in 1870: “In college, the class is the charmed circle, within which the individual contracts most of his friendships and finds his fondest and most cherished association. The sentiment of his class is that which influences him most efficiently, and is to him often the only atmosphere of his social life.” The applause won by leading members was regarded with peculiar complacency by each member as belonging to the common fund of class credit. After graduation, the glory won by the great men of the class gave a certain prestige to the class itself.4

The college population was small: the class of 1833 was to graduate eighty-seven, after losing some twenty-nine original members to early death or to withdrawal for disciplinary, economic, or health reasons. “Socially,” Yale historian Clarence Deming observed, “a student life that converged on a single campus and four dormitories was necessarily intense.”5 The enforced intimacy “of the four years’ class association resulted in the cultivation of a certain practical judgment of men,” another historian of college life has written. “In the old days about three fifths of the talk of the undergraduates was about one another. It began when the sub-freshmen met to be examined for admission, and continued until graduation. The amount of attention which men paid to one another, and the time devoted to estimating one another’s social, moral, and intellectual qualities, and discussing details of conduct, were extraordinary. . . . [T]he apparatus for bringing men of the same class together was efficient, and it usually did happen that by the end of the freshman year nearly every man believed he knew, or knew about, every man in his class whose acquaintance it seemed likely to be worth his while to make. Men were misjudged, misunderstood, overestimated, and underestimated, but acquaintance was very general and constantly ripening, and estimates were in a constant state of revision and reconstruction.” Indeed, until 1830 or 1831, Yale students voted on the general deportment of their classmates, respecting the relative rank of their fellows as a basis for the action of the faculty in assigning the college honors.6 These habits were to be integral to the fascination with, and function of, the process of elections to the senior societies.

The boys and men in the class of 1833 ranged in age from fourteen, the youngest age permitted for admission under the college laws, to twenty-eight years, with more than half under eighteen. Forty-one percent hailed from Connecticut (Yale drew heavily from rural Connecticut, and relied upon New Haven to a considerably lesser degree than Harvard did upon Boston, from which half its students hailed). Nineteen percent came from New York, 15 percent from Massachusetts, 7 percent from the South (Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana), 3 percent from the West (Ohio and Illinois), and the balance, except for a collegian from St. Croix in the West Indies, hailed from the other New England states.

Yale from 1820 to 1860 was the largest college in the United States, and at this date the nation’s most genuinely national educational institution in terms of the origins of its students and the ultimate destinations of its graduates.7 By 1830, barely 25 percent remained in Connecticut after graduation, most settling in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other trans-Appalachian states. Yale appears to have become by 1820 an important entrepôt not only for New Englanders seeking greater opportunities, but also for Southerners and Westerners moving toward eastern commercial and cultural centers. Yale’s curriculum, with its meritocratic and universalistic emphasis, was ideally suited to socialize this wildly diverse student body.8

The student mix was not only geographic. Julian Sturtevant of the class of 1826, hailing from the farm village of Tallmadge, Ohio, and preparing for the ministry, with tuition for that purpose covered by the American Education Society, wrote of his fellow collegians gathered to eat in commons. “That group of students,” he remembered, “was a strange medley. The families of merchant princes of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; of aristocratic cotton planters; of hard-handed New England farmers; of Ohio backwoodsmen, and of the humblest sons of daily toil, sitting at the same tables. Those who wished to be educated at Yale, the Alma Mater of so many distinguished men, were compelled to accept this intermingling of the rich and poor. Yale College . . . was the most democratic portion of American society.”9

That democracy had been strongly reinforced, from the middle of the eighteenth century onward, by the competition which was explicit in the award of scholarly distinctions by the faculty. At the foundations of both Harvard College (1636) and Yale College (1701), students were ranked in a special order based, in varying degrees at different times, on appraisals of family position, intellectual promise, and parental relationship to the college, and thereafter listed throughout their undergraduate terms, at graduation and in the graduate catalogues, based on that ranking. A man’s seat in class, chapel, commons, and all else was fixed by it. “Placing” registered only what a boy’s father was—the first-ranked being a son of a governor, or of a president of Yale, then, in descending order, sons of other colonial officials, sons of the college trustees, sons of ministers, sons of alumni, and finally (as said of Harvard) the sons of “farmers, storekeepers, mariners and artisans arranged in an order which cannot be explained by wealth or social position.” All classes learned humility from the conclusion of the college prayer: “May we perform faithfully our duties to our superiors, our equals, and inferiors.” The Yale Corporation decided to abolish this system, seemingly because of its very complexity, in 1766.10

Most students’ reaction to this abolition was naturally favorable. A sophomore when the change was effected, David Avery of the class of 1769, wrote Dartmouth President Eleazar Wheelock (Yale class of 1733): “There appears [to be] a laudable ambition to excel in knowledge. It is not he that has got the finest coat or the largest ruffles that is esteemed here at present. And as the class henceforward are to be placed alphabetically, the students may expect marks of distinction to be put upon the best scholars ands speakers.”11 For the first time, intelligence prevailed over family inheritance as a requisite for accomplishment in the society of the college. These “marks of distinction” were to weigh heavily in the formation and member selection of the Yale senior societies, six decades on.

The aim of the college, then employing a faculty of ten professors, was to produce men for the learned professions, for “public employments in church and civil state.” (In a typical class of the era, Timothy Dwight’s of 1849, thirty-five of his ninety-four classmates became lawyers, twenty-five entered the ministry, seven became doctors, and only nine pursued a career in business.12) On the religious front, attendance was still required on Sundays at two services, and prayers on uncushioned pews were held in the chapel every morning at 5:00 A.M. in summer and 6:00 A.M. in winter. Immediately after morning chapel was held the first of the three recitations of the day, often by candlelight. A give-and-take occurred as the student prepared passages from the assigned text for the instructor’s in-class examination of him. They studied in three divisions, named for the Old Brick Row building locations in which the recitations were held, the North, Middle, and South Colleges. From 1827 they ate in a common wooden dining hall on High Street, not to be abandoned until 1841. There were twelve weeks of vacation during the year, divided among three terms.

Virtually the only legitimate avenue of escape open to the undergraduate from the monotony of the prescribed existence was the company of his fellow students, and the only fairly comfortable and attractive places were the rented rooms of the literary societies. Societies which featured warm companionship, long and heated orations and debates, dramatic “productions,” and comparatively large libraries containing contemporary as well as classic literature came into being at most colonial colleges from almost their very beginnings. These grand precursors of the senior societies at Yale demonstrated that the students could build a culture, “a means for self improvement, the ‘junto’ of the leisured college man,” a historian of American campus life has written. “Did the required course of study ignore the basic education desired by collegians aspiring to be men of culture? Then build outside its bounds a fellowship to address contemporary philosophy and politics. Did recitation allow no real cultivation of manners and style? Then use the society to improve writing and public speaking. Did the college not provide the necessary books to study the great questions of the day? Then organize a library within the society.”13 Their Wednesday afternoon weekly meetings at Yale College were eagerly anticipated (the administration allowed a half-holiday for them), and their exercises considered to be of much greater importance than regular recitations. The athlete had not yet arisen as a college hero, so the orator and writer represented the ideals of the academic youth.14

Physically, the Yale of 1832 was modestly sized: confined to one city block, in expansion from the southeast corner of the present Old Campus—a town square assemblage only finally secured in 1800—with the school buildings faced east to the New Haven Green across the aptly named College Street, between Chapel and Elm Streets. The Old Brick Row, laid out in 1792 by college treasurer James Hillhouse and artist John Trumbull as the country’s first planned college campus, was a straight line of seven buildings, four being dormitories with geographical names: South (built in 1793, flanking Chapel Street), the Athenaeum, South Middle (originally, and now, “Connecticut Hall,” the first, built in 1750–52), the Lyceum, North Middle, the Chapel, and North (flanking Elm Street), built in 1821, considered the best of the lot at the time, and thus occupied by the seniors.

These buildings served to gather students under one roof where, it was believed, with proper supervision by college authorities, the young men could grow religiously, intellectually, and socially. In the words of Andrew Dickson White, class of 1853, the structures presented a “long line of brick barracks, the cheapest which could be built for money,” each four stories high, with two entries, each entry giving access to sixteen rooms, four on a floor. Behind the row of four dormitories and the various religious or academic buildings (of which only Connecticut Hall remains), was the Laboratory, also used as the dining hall. Impecunious students were allowed to live—and cook—in the recitation rooms in exchange for cleaning those rooms and keeping fires in the stoves.15

“By no educational criteria derived from any time, place, or philosophy,” it has been said, “can the early 19th century American college curriculum as actually taught be made to look attractive. It consisted almost solely of a drill in Latin, Greek, and mathematics, with a cursory view of science and some moral philosophy and belles lettres as the capstone.”16

A senior year course in moral philosophy was virtually universal among American colleges at the time, although details varied as a function of their respective religious affiliations. This was designed to draw together all the scrambled admonitions and reprimands that had theretofore been lavished on youth, to arrange them in a systematic body, and offer them as a moral legacy of the ages to be studied, cherished, and presumably obeyed throughout life. In the words of the famous and influential Yale Report of 1828—formally, Reports on Course of Instruction in Yale College by a Committee of the Corporation, and the Academical Faculty—the bachelor of arts curriculum “emphasized the study of classical languages, science, and mathematics with the aim of building character and promoting distinctive habits of thought.”17

The Yale Report’s embrace of the Enlightenment goal of self-realization could not have been more plain, in a remarkable statement on the subject of how to educate people for autonomy, declaring the the object of college instruction was not to gain information, but to acquire the ability to think independently. “No one feature in a system of intellectual education, is of greater moment than such an arrangement of duties and motives, as will most effectually throw the student upon the resources of his own mind. Without this, the whole apparatus of libraries, and instruments, and specimens, and lectures, and teachers, will be insufficient to secure distinguished excellence.”

However elevated the goals of the Yale College educational system, as repurposed by the Report’s primary author, President Day, their methods of delivery for the “richest treasure of thought” were stilted and the atmosphere arid. (Not that methods up in Cambridge were particularly better: Samuel Eliot Morison observed that “almost every graduate of the period 1825–1860 has left on record his detestation of the system of instruction at Harvard.”) “Its power,” Julian Sturtevant recalled of Yale in 1826, “lay in its fixed and rigidly prescribed curriculum, and its thorough drill. The tutors were good drillmasters, but often lacked culture and the literary spirit. They did not bring the students into sympathy with classic authors as models of literary excellence. . . . In mental, moral and social science our instruction was far from satisfactory.”

Nor was there the student-faculty personal interchange which might have softened the rigors of recitation and learning by rote. “One of the greatest faults of Yale at the time,” Julian Sturtevant remembered, “was the absence of any social relations between the instructors of all grades and the students. Professors and tutors held themselves aloof from the students and met them only in an official capacity. For the most part a student could hope for sympathy and help in his moral and religious struggles only from his fellow students.”18

Because the practices of public speaking and of debate or “disputation,” to which allusion was made in the Yale Report, were to be so important to the founding of the Yale senior societies, their role in the curriculum of this era is worth examining. Only in 1776, three-quarters of a century after Yale’s founding, was permission given to the senior class for instruction in rhetoric, history, and belles lettres, and then only “provided it may be done with the Approbation of the Parents or Guardians of said Class.” By the century’s turn, freshmen received training in Cicero’s De Oratore, and all students, regardless of class, were required in daily rotation to “exhibit” compositions of various kinds, and submit them to the instructor’s criticism. Meeting in units of four, they declaimed, publicly and privately, on Tuesdays and Fridays, in English, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew; when required, each had to hand in a copy of his declamation “fairly written.”19

As for single orators, the professor of rhetoric from 1817 to 1839, Chauncey Allen Goodrich, noted that the program of individual declamations, daily for underclassmen before their respective tutors, was not especially successful. Since the students had no text on elocution, they did not understand “the technical terms,” and “instruction, however clearly conveyed, must be chiefly unintelligible,” Goodrich complained. This training, furthermore, was deferred until senior year, after bad habits had settled in during the underclass declamations, and the class time spent was “hardly equal to that allotted to Geography.” Even for those with technical proficiency, the result disappointed. In his journal for 1828, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his brother Charles’s Harvard College valedictory address: “[h]e is a spectacle instead of being an engine: a fine show at which we look, instead of an agent that moves us.” By concentrating solely on the technical aspects of his presentation, he was like someone who had “chalked around him a circle on a floor & within that he exhibits these various excellences to all the curious.”20

The general public noticed these deficiencies: complaints about the poor rendition of orations, debates, and disputations at exhibitions and commencements had been frequent for many years. A contributor to the New England Magazine in 1832 voiced his objections to the delivery of preachers and public men, urging that colleges take notice. “It is but recently that they have given much attention to the subject of Eloquence, or elocution, as a science to be taught. . . . A taste for polite literature and the fine arts is becoming too general among the population of the country to allow the colleges to send forth their annual hosts of graduates for the pulpits and the forum, untaught in the most important accomplishment of a public man, without severe rebuke. Yale has already done something for improvement in the art of speaking; and Harvard—good old dull and sleepy matron, is just awaking, and rubbing her eyes, and perceives the necessity of doing a little to stop the public clamor, and shield her alumni from the reproaches of common school-boys.”21

For training in debate, making its curricular debut as early as 1747, the procedure of “forensic disputation” (which replaced the seventeenth-century style conducted in Latin known as “syllogistic disputation”) was practiced, during term time with juniors once a fortnight, and seniors every six weeks, and beginning in 1766 again for seniors at commencement. Here, the tutor or professor appointed the question, assigned the speakers and their respective sides of the question, then gave a determination and decision, usually on the merits of the question, rather than those of the disputants. The number of debaters was no greater than eight, and in the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth, the forensic disputes held in the classroom were usually written in English and then read aloud.

The written disputations for commencement received a thorough prior examination, in order to protect the trustees and audience from any intellectual and political impropriety. The Laws of Yale College for 1829 required the students to submit their pieces to the president and to accept whatever corrections and deletions the officials imposed. To this pattern common throughout the colonial chartered colleges for commencement exercise disputations, Yale, Harvard, and Brown all required a careful rehearsal of the “debate” before its final exhibition at the ceremony, where the forensics, although written in advance, were pronounced memoriter, from memory.22

Extemporaneous exercises were not completely absent. President Ezra Stiles’s diaries for 1781 record a dispute “of the Juniors in Chapel on the Question relating to the proposed Articles of Peace—they disputed orally without writing.” Indeed, the Yale Report of 1828 boasted of the “Opportunity . . . given to our classes, for full investigation and discussion of particular subjects, in the written and extemporaneous disputes, which constitute an important part of our course of exercises.” Nevertheless, this refreshing change from the drudgery of the more formal and confining forensics was infrequently practiced, and although the forensic disputation lingered on in the Yale curriculum until 1883–84, the practice was already declining appreciably in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Instead of providing for twice-weekly disputes by juniors and seniors, the annual catalogue for 1822 had limited the exercise to “once or twice a week,” and in 1827 there occurred the last of the regular forensic debates with two or more participants before a commencement audience.23

Collegians hungry for further exercises in disputation and more frequent opportunities to speak extemporaneously on topics they might name themselves were thereafter relying heavily on their three literary societies, Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope, for more frequent and self-administered debate programs. In the eighteenth century, speaking “extempore” meant well prepared but not memorized constructive speeches. The business sessions of the societies did allow some truly extemporaneous speeches in parliamentary practice, but that was about all.24 By the 1820s, if not earlier, and not changing through their demise in the 1870s, the ancient literary societies’ debates were anything but extemporaneous or even in the modern sense “debates”: by then, topics were set far in advance, for the ensuing term, the speeches pro and con were written out, and then memorized for delivery. These carefully planned and written speeches exhibited comparatively little adaptation to immediately preceding arguments, particularly when the participants were less experienced members.

In response to this unsatisfactory situation, nineteen men of the class of 1831 when sophomores in 1828 formed Philagorian, whose constitutionally mandated “primary object” was “improvement in extemporaneous speaking,” meeting weekly, but the club did not survive their junior year. It would not be remembered today if one of its members had not been Noah Porter, who was to be elected Yale’s president four decades later (and to deplore the secret societies of that era, although he had himself as an undergraduate taken an oath of strict secrecy for the Philagorian). Even the Philagorians did not truly speak extemporaneously, nor were all compelled to speak on the same topic on the same weekly evening: their subjects were given out “two weeks before its exhibition by the disputants,” of whom there were only four each meeting, named by the secretary for argument not to exceed twelve minutes each on the day.25

The “chambers” in the dormitories of Old Brick Row, chosen by the students in order of class rank with seniors first, were Spartan quarters: these old structures had sagging beams, bare and billowy floors, cracked ceilings, wall panels deep-furrowed by college fire pokers or marred by generations of pocket knives, and a musty odor. The second floor of each dormitory was preferred by privileged underclassmen among the seniors who almost entirely preempted it, because that level avoided the cold and damp (and drainage smell) of the first floor as well as the long walk to the upper stories. The low ceilings could be reached with the hand, the floors were bare, the heat from the coal stoves varied with the fuel supply, and dust and dirt were abundant. Entering the corridor at night was risky, for the stairs were treacherous and unlighted, gas lighting being still over twenty years away.

Bedrooms were dark, small, and unventilated. Few could afford curtains, clocks, rugs, desks, or upholstered furniture, and none could avoid going outside for a relieving visit to the “Joe,” or shave or bathe (in a tin tub) other than in cold water available only from the pumps in the college yard. Each man was his own chambermaid, so beds were made once a week, or perhaps once a term. Mildew was perpetual, and drafts blew in through window casings, doors and chimney flues, while cylinder stoves and tallow candles and whale-oil lamps all fouled the air. Professor Benjamin Silliman is reputed to have said that he would not have stabled his favorite horse in such accommodations.26 There were, of course, no common rooms or other student social facilities within the dormitories. These rude conditions go far to explain why in the early years of the senior societies, even a relative degree of comfort in their society rooms was regarded as one of the chief satisfactions of membership.

Since there were also no athletic sports or facilities (and no gymnasium until 1846, with the students importing their own trainer from New York City), practically the only legitimate avenue of escape from the monotony of the prescribed existence open to the undergraduates was the company of their fellow students and the societies they had formed or were to form. Daniel Chamberlain wrote in his senior year of 1861 that “our two rival public Literary Societies were far more influential thirty . . . years ago” [that is, in 1831], then holding “their true rank in the esteem of Students, as the second great interest of College life” after the curriculum itself. To be “first president” of Brothers or Linonia—i.e., president in the first of the school year’s three terms—was to rank in honor with the valedictorian.27

More and more students were coming to New Haven from outside Connecticut and even New England, from the South and the Middle and Far West, while fewer and fewer of them were expecting to enter family businesses or otherwise to follow in their fathers’ occupations, or to pursue careers in their birthplaces. For collegians so cut off from traditional values and sources of control, finding themselves beyond the support systems of kin and community which supported earlier generations, the process of mutual socialization fostered by the student societies took on extraordinary importance. These societies, furthermore, soon took on a hierarchical form, as those with a broader educational or political focus, beyond the merely social, coming to contain the most talented, influential, and articulate members of the student body. “In time,” a modern historian has observed, “possession of a degree and membership in certain student societies came to signify more than the mastery of a body of knowledge; it was a credential of a more general kind of trustworthiness and breadth of purpose which, as the nineteenth-century economy and its political and social activities became more diverse and tumultuous, assumed particular importance, both in the view of the college men themselves and, by the end of the Civil War, in the eyes of society itself.”28

In his memoir Annals of Yale College of 1834, Ebenezer Baldwin emphasized that the opportunities for student recreational association were very limited. The social organization he named “first in rank” was Phi Beta Kappa (although he waspishly notes that “as the proceedings of this society, except are their anniversaries, are not public, it is impossible to ascertain how far they have advanced the cause of learning”). He observed that membership there, of course, “exists during the lives of members,” as opposed to only the shared years in college. More important in his view were the “Societies of the Students,” the Linonian, Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean (founded in 1819), into which societies all members of the class were inducted and, meeting weekly for three hours, could debate topics which were not chosen by the faculty.

“Their meetings and ordinary proceedings are private,” Baldwin noted, “but strictly confined to literary pursuits, and chiefly to discussions on scientific questions. Whether the Masonic secrecy required of members is a valuable feature in these Societies, may, perhaps, be a matter of doubt: it probably was adopted with a view to inspire confidence in literary exertions, and as a shield for the modesty of young gentlemen, who might act with confidence before their friends, but would shrink under the apprehension of public criticism.”29 Despite his personal dislike of secrecy, whether in the Alpha of Connecticut or in the literary societies, Baldwin’s observation of its social utility of privacy provides evidence why the students forming Skull and Bones, and the several senior societies which were founded in its wake, might find secrecy profoundly useful in their intellectual and emotional development.


The quality of the young men in the class of 1833 and their immediate successors in the senior class society which came to be known as—in its contemporary spelling—“Scull and Bones” was remarkably high. Founded by the valedictorian and class orator during his senior year, its first membership of fourteen included men who held six places in Phi Beta Kappa, the offices of class orator and class poet, two presidencies of Linonia, and three of the higher appointments in scholarship. In the ten delegations ending with that of 1842, it persisted in electing much of the intellectual and literary talent of each class, achieving in the sum total of its honors twelve presidencies of Linonia and thirteen of Brothers (there were three presidencies a year in each), five class orators and three class poets, fifty-seven places in Phi Beta Kappa, eighteen positions out of thirty on the six Yale Literary Magazine boards following the inception of the magazine in 1836, and an average of four of the high-stand scholarship men each year.30

How did this aggregation of achievers come to pass? A critic of the senior society system, writing of Skull and Bones in Collier’s magazine some seven decades later in 1912, observed: “Its tests are democracy, accomplishment, and character. Where it differs completely from the Harvard and Princeton ideal is in the fact that it does not seek social compatibility as a basis of selection. It selects the present leaders of undergraduate activities with a view to future possible achievement, and brings an extraordinar[il]y diverse number of elements under its authority to form a representative strain of what is most vital in Yale life.”31

Did this first society begin, as it clearly went on, with this passion for excellence? If they wanted something secret, which they could no longer find in Phi Beta Kappa, did they also, from the outset, want some other qualities in their fellow members, which Phi Beta Kappa’s informal qualifications for membership did not always seek, or even recognize? Since there was no “club” of 1832 to form the fourteen-member club of 1833, what can be inferred from the biographies of those members themselves, and who did the choosing?

The conception seems to have been that of William Huntington Russell, the class valedictorian, class orator, secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, and a first president of Linonia. (“There is no office or honor in the gift of the students,” wrote a Yale senior in 1860, “which is regarded higher than the first presidency of these [literary] societies in each Senior Class.”) His singular importance to the new society only begins to be conveyed in a quatrain printed in an early issue of the Yale News that touches on his society’s famous tomb, called the “T” by its initiates, and the club’s identification with the Greek orator Demosthenes:

Our good old pater Russell

In the year thirty-two or three

Built a hall for the old Greek

Which suited him to a T.32

His military title was bestowed in 1862, when Russell was named the major general of the Militia of Connecticut. His military career followed his service in the state legislature representing New Haven in 1846–47. The scion of a family with four preceding generations in Yale College, Russell was descended from the Reverend Noadiah Russell, of Middletown (Harvard class of 1681), one of the ten ministers who founded Yale College in 1701. William Russell worked his way through Yale College, frequently walking the twenty-two miles to his hometown of Middletown, Connecticut, to save the cost of transportation. He was one of the older men of the class, being twenty-four at graduation. The lack of consistent age-grading in the college meant that natural leaders emerged from among the older and more experienced students within a class to organize student societies—and occasional rebellions.

After teaching high school in Princeton, New Jersey, for two years, he returned to Yale as a tutor, earning both an MA degree and an MD, before starting his own school in his home in 1836. He was an ardent abolitionist and a personal friend of John Brown (indeed, one of the trustees named in Brown’s will). Russell’s tombstone in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery (which does not mention his Yale College class or his senior society), characterizes him successively as “teacher,” “patriot,” “lover of liberty,” and “Christian.” It notes under the first title “teacher” that more than three thousand students graduated from the Collegiate and Commercial Institute which he founded and ran in New Haven for decades, many of whose graduates matriculated at Yale. With the addition of military drill exercises, the Institute assumed the characteristics of a military school, its rating second to none except West Point itself, and over three hundred of its graduates became commissioned officers in the Northern armies of the Civil War.33

Russell’s name was not, in later years, the best known name nationally in his senior society or his class of 1833: that honor belonged to Alphonso Taft, who finished two places behind Russell in the class scholarship rankings and delivered orations at both the Junior Exhibition and his commencement. He is the only American ever to hold the four posts of attorney general, secretary of war, and ambassador to each of Austria and Russia. This Taft was also the progenitor of one of the great Yale and Skull and Bones dynasties. Four of his sons were elected to Bones, including Peter (valedictorian of the class of 1867), William Howard (salutatorian of the class of 1878, later president of the United States), Henry (1880), and Horace (1883, founder of the Taft School). So too were grandsons Robert Alphonso (1910, to be U.S. senator from Ohio and loser of the 1952 Republican nomination for the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower) and Charles Phelps (1918).34 In a speech given at Yale in 1909, President Taft noted that his father “walked from Vermont to Amherst College, Mass., and then he heard there was a larger college at New Haven, and he walked there.”35 Like Russell, Alphonso was a bit older than the class median, approaching twenty-three at graduation. However great his later fame and illustrious his family, it was Russell, not Taft, who came up with the concept of the new society—indeed, Taft was among the last invited to join.

The founding of the order of Scull and Bone began with a prank, which mutated into a series of classic college bull sessions, and ended with a high educational purpose. Juniors George Ingersoll Wood and Frederick Mather, who had entered Yale as a second-term sophomore, lived during the 1831–32 school year in 28 North Middle Hall, and their classmate Russell resided on the floor above in 48 North Middle. Some time in the late summer term, according to Wood’s memoir of the occasion, Russell came down to their room “draped to personate a ghost with a white sheet closely wrapped around his head and body, to frighten my roommate Mather and myself, making for the moment a decided sensation—though not one of terror.” Wood could not recollect which of the three suggested that “we should organize some kind of a secret society, in which we should have—among other things of more importance—some mysterious rites and ceremonies (suggested by Russell’s ghost-like appearance).” A club shrouded in secrecy would certainly have been on their minds if this gathering occurred after Russell and Wood’s induction into the newly non-secret Phi Beta Kappa on June 7, 1832. Russell was thereafter elected as meeting chair and secretary for that Phi Beta Kappa election class’s first meeting on July 9.

In subsequent discussions, they all “agreed upon one important point, and that was we needed the benefits of a social society which should supplement our [Yale] College and [Linonia] Society training, by helping us to make the important acquisition of being able to think upon our feetwithout the aids of retirement, pen and paper—and especially to express at the moment whatever opinion we might have on any given topic. That idea became the nucleus of our Club, and was subsequently embodied in our Constitution or Regulations and reduced to practice in our meetings.”36

William Wallace Crapo, a member of the Bones club of 1852 and later a member of Congress, was to express the same thought more fully in the Yale Literary Magazine in 1886, in an article explaining the demise of the literary societies which the senior societies were to be damned for fatally wounding: “The elaborate written essay, learned by heart and repeated from the platform is a poor substitute for oratory. . . . There is needed the spark which comes only from a collision in the pointed reply, the fallacy exposed as soon as stated, and the argument heard for the first time and answered on the spot.”37

To Yale students of this time, the personal importance of training in debate and oratory can hardly be overstated. Charles Astor Bristed, grandson of John Jacob Astor II and a graduate of the class of 1839, published in 1852 his two-volume work, Five Years in an English University, comparing (to New Haven’s general disadvantage) Bristed’s experience at Cambridge with his time at Yale. His trenchant observations make clear the implications for their careers of the extemporaneous-debate-seeking student founders of Skull and Bones and the successor senior societies: “[T]o speak and write well, it is said, are the great aims and requisites of the minister, the lawyer, and the political man of any sort. They are the principal means of obtaining fame and power in a free country, and therefore are the highest intellectual ends of man; that is the best education which best prepares the student for them.”

Of his time as a student in the decade of Bones’ founding, Bristed opined that “all students ambitious of distinction are, by common consent, divided into two classes, called in their own phraseology scholars and writers.” Initially, “The [Yale] Freshman’s object of reverence may perhaps be the ‘Valedictorian;’ but by the time he is well launched into his Sophomore year, his admiration is transferred to the ‘First President’ of the Brothers’ or Linionian Society, the ‘First Editor’ of the Yale Literary, and the ‘Class Orator.’ Supposing a student to have received the ‘appointment’ of an Oration from the Faculty, and also to have been elected Editor of the Magazine by the students, he and his fellows would consider the latter a far greater honor than the former—so far above it that the two can hardly be put in comparison. In short,” he emphasized in italics, “the distinctions conferred by the students on one another are more prized than the distinctions conferred by the College authorities on the students.38

As a former first president of Linonia and class orator to be, Russell—in Bristed’s formulation, both a “writer” and a “scholar”—was almost certainly the one who most fervently believed that the forensic disputes in the college’s prescribed curriculum were deficient in failing to provide any rigorous training in extemporaneous speaking in debate. Ambitious students were beginning at the wrong end: they were acquiring manner before matter, and a style in advance of thought. Moreover, adequate criticism was lacking. “There are gathered together from thirty to one hundred young fellows,” Bristed complained of the Yale literary societies, “whose capacity to criticize is not equal to their disposition, and whose disposition is modified by their interest.” Negative opinions of performance seemed like jealousy, and so the loudest and most showy efforts were the most applauded. “The benefit proposed, sometimes without an attempt to disguise it to the pupil, was that [the speaker] should be able to humbug the people and get on in the world (that is the plain Saxon of it), which he was to accomplish by always being ready to talk about anything, and never be at a loss for a plausible argument.”39

By 1832, some eighty years after the founding of Linonia, the “forensic disputations” were on set questions which were but a small part of the members’ program, now including lectures, orations, dialogues, anonymous papers read by a committee, and dramatic exhibitions. The latter had become so frequent and costly that they required the maintenance of large wardrobes for the costumes. Although the exhibitions had ceased about the year 1830, their demise did not revive the debates. Only a small number of the members generally took part, with speeches which were written out (hence Wood’s reference to “retirement, pen and paper”) and repeated from memory.40

That fall, Wood had moved to No. 122 North College with his new but then-suspended roommate, Robert Robertson.41 Sometime in October or November, the trio of Russell, Wood, and Mather, pipes in hand, held “a long talk and a social fumigation” about their thoughts in the summer term, and determined to proceed with formation of their society (years later, the satirical campus annual The Yale Naughty-Gal All-Man-Ax for 1875 named September 16, 1832, as the founding date). Wood was named secretary and treasurer, and asked to prepare a draft constitution.

At the next meeting of the three, five more men were identified to join: John Campbell Beach, Noah Bishop, Asahel Lewis, Phineas Miller, and Robertson, back from his faculty suspension. Along with Russell and Wood, Beach (who went on to practice law with New York governor William Seward), Bishop, and Robertson (to be elected class poet at graduation) were all members of Phi Beta Kappa. Geographically, of the enlarged group of eight, six men were from Connecticut, one from New York, and one from Virginia. Some were friends from the literary societies, six from Linonia, including presidents Russell and Lewis, and two from Calliope, the Southerner Robertson and the New Yorker Beach. Meeting first on Christmas Eve 1832 and determined to try their powers, they each wrote down debate topics and drew a question. This was argued so vigorously it was said that the tumblers were shaken off the washstand and broken into a thousand pieces.

Another six classmates were invited to join shortly thereafter, hailing, respectively, from Massachusetts (Samuel Bates), Vermont (Alphonso Taft), Connecticut again (John Crump), South Carolina (Benjamin Franklin Davis, who had only just entered the class as a junior), Ohio (Rufus Hart), and Illinois (Samuel Marshall). The number of members, fourteen, seems to have had no special significance; although it became the following year and thereafter a fixed fifteen, the number has never attracted speculation as to its reason. The Apostles at Cambridge University were named by non-members because their founders were twelve in number, but in 1832 that club’s membership tally was almost certainly unknown to the New Haveners.42 All of the subsequent senior societies at Yale were to follow Bones’ lead in selecting fifteen members each year—and earning derision on campus when they could not.

Academically then in Yale College, there were already a top fifteen: five high-stand men chosen by the faculty from each of the three divisions of the class at the end of the first term of the junior year. In this sense, the finally settled number of annual membership in Skull and Bones, a number replicated by all the senior societies to follow at Yale, both echoed and mocked the faculty-chosen hierarchy. College men placed a high value on mutuality, on the bonds that united them with each other against the faculty. They insisted that they did not share the social prejudices of their era and boasted of their “democracy.” Nevertheless, while their words suggest a degree of egalitarianism, their social structure was “intensely hierarchical,” in the words of the leading historian of American undergraduate culture. “What collegiate democracy meant was that college men did not fully accept the status system of the broader society [including college faculty opinion] but created their own,” where oratorical and literary achievements, a sense of fair play, social grace, and in time, athletic prowess “weighed significantly.”43

Seven of these fourteen original Bonesmen were from Connecticut (although none from New Haven), in roughly the same percentage as in the distribution of class population as a whole, and a lesser percentage, with one man from Massachusetts, than those two states’ students in the aggregate of the class. The new society included as well the only two members of the class of 1833 from the Western states of Ohio and Illinois, and two of the class’s seven members hailing from Southern states, in this case Virginia and South Carolina. In after-college professional or business life, the first club divided itself into five lawyers, two clergymen, one educator, three doctors, two who engaged in miscellaneous literary work, and one farmer.

By way of comparison, the geographical distribution of the class of 1833’s thirty-five members of Phi Beta Kappa was markedly different: 57 percent were from Connecticut (when only 41 percent of the class was from Connecticut), and all other members resided in New York, New Jersey, and the balance of New England, excepting only one member from the West (Ohio), and two from the South (Maryland, and Virginia’s Robertson). Also, two of the Bones fourteen, Mather and Davis, were transfer students into Yale from other institutions, which was seemingly a disqualification for membership in the older society.

Nor were they the closest of friends. Looking at college housing records, only Mather and Wood roomed together junior year when election was made, though they did not do so as seniors. None of the other Phi Beta Kappa members who also joined the new senior society were roommates at the time of selection. While four pairs of the 1833 Bonesmen did room together in their senior year, none had been roommates before. Finally, except for Russell, with his Yale College founder great-great-great-grandfather, and George Ingersoll Wood, whose mother was the daughter of Oliver Ellsworth, the second chief justice of the United States, none of the original fourteen can be said to be scions of the nascent American aristocracy.44

This is all by way of emphasizing that, whether or not Russell was the primary decision maker for the candidates for original membership—which seems unlikely, given how the group expanded over time—the choices made for Bones were much more varied, national, and “democratic” than the choices of Phi Beta Kappa drawn from the same pool of candidates. As such, the composition of the very first senior society contingent set a pattern that was to ripple far into the future, with great consequence for Yale’s nationally vaunted “democracy” and great relevance to the arguments over whether the senior societies promoted or retarded that democratic culture.

Moreover, the society’s founders were in a position to reinforce this pattern of values in elections to succeeding clubs, because several, ranking in the academical top fifteen, stayed on or came back to be tutors in Yale College, where two lived in each of the dormitories, or continued their studies in the legal, medical, or theological divisions of the college. For example, George Wood attended the divinity school, and after teaching high school in Princeton following his graduation, Russell returned to New Haven as a tutor from May 1835 to September 1836, the second year while studying for a medical degree in the Yale Medical School. Lyman Bagg’s memoir of 1871 also tells the story that “the faculty once broke in upon one of its [the Bones] meetings, and from what they saw, determined upon its abolishment, but by the intercessions and explanations of its founder [Russell] then serving as a tutor among them, were inclined to spare it.”45

Yale president Timothy Dwight, salutatorian of the class and member of the Bones club of 1849, then a tutor from 1851 to 1855, before leaving for further study abroad, found in retrospect that his senior society graduate membership was a positive advantage when tutoring. “With reference to the friendly relations between the younger members of the Faculty and the students,” he remembered, “I think that in these years the smaller and secret societies began to exert an influence of a special character. These societies, during the larger portion of my tutorial career, drew into their fraternal fellowship, more fully and frequently than they had done before, their members who were already graduates, and, among them, those who had been appointed to officers of instruction in the College. An opportunity was thus opened for a very free and unrestrained intercourse, from time to time, between the teachers and their pupils. The two parties were easily rendered able to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings, and to gain, each from the other, opinions or suggestions which might have the best and happiest influence. . . . [S]uch opportunities . . . gave me the knowledge of the student mind, as well as a familiar and friendly acquaintance with the ideas and sentiments of individual student.”46

Alphonso Taft was also a tutor, from 1835 to 1837, studying at Yale Law School the second academic year. His students included two men in the famous class of 1837, both to be Bones members, the future chief justice of the United States, Morrison Waite, and the future attorney general and secretary of state, William Maxwell Evarts. When, at the tender age of thirty-three, Alphonso’s son William Howard Taft became the solicitor general of the United States, Evarts called upon him on Taft’s first morning in his Washington office, inviting the astonished young man to dinner that night, and saying of Alphonso, “he was a tutor there in my time, and I valued his friendship very highly.”47

Two other Bonesman in the founding class of 1833 also spent time in New Haven after graduation. Frederick Ellsworth Mather studied law at Yale in the 1834–35 academic year, and Phineas T. Miller studied medicine in New Haven immediately after graduating and practiced as a doctor there until 1849, where in the later years he ran the city’s General Hospital. While neither was formally a tutor, both probably helped nurture the new society’s successive clubs toward a constant standard of rewarding excellence in Yale College achievement (while, more prosaically, Dr. Miller was in a position to contribute a hospital skeleton to the rooms of the fledgling organization).48

Still, before the molding of men, there had to be the making of traditions. As Avery Allyn said in his inflammatory book on the Masons, Phi Beta Kappa had “its secret obligation, sign, grip, word, and jewel.” He included for emphasis a plate showing the society’s “Sign” between members for mutual recognition; the “Grip,” which was a handshake variation; and “Both sides of the Medal.”49 The young men in the Yale senior societies which followed were not to be denied their own variations on these themes.

On traditions which must be invented, Professor Noah Porter, who had been in both Phi Beta Kappa and Philagorian when each had all these features of secrecy, noted in his book on American colleges that “This community has its traditions, which are represented to be sacred by age and uniform observance; its customs, which are so ancient that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, i.e., for one college generation. . . . It is eminently a law unto itself, making and enforcing such laws as no other community would recognize or understand; laws which are often strangely incongruous with the usually received commandments of God and Man. . . . Its social customs, laws, and criteria, are the products of its isolated and peculiar life, and are an unsolved mystery to all other societies.”50 Perhaps there exists no better proof of Porter’s observation on a college generation’s memory than the testimony of a member of the class of 1844 at Yale, published only a decade after Skull and Bones was founded: “The Skull and Bone Society is of quite an ancient origin. It is one of the most secret associations in the Institution [the college].”51

For the new senior society at Yale, the quintet of characteristics making impact on the campus was not the Allyn quintet of “secret obligation, sign, grip, word, and jewel,” but rather, the public symbol, badge, catalogue, code, and election method. Both existing Yale societies, Phi Beta Kappa and the short-lived Chi Delta Theta, founded in 1821 and expiring by 1844, and taking in about a quarter of the senior class, had identifying ornaments, and these could be created immediately to make the society’s mark in the college community. The other features would take a bit more time to develop and make impressive. At the outset, the new society met in rented rooms. By 1842, it had settled in a commercial building occupied by Linonia numbered 460 Chapel, located just west of the corner of College and Chapel Streets, holding its weekly meetings up the stairs from and to the rear of the larger room used by the literary society. (The famous High Street “tomb” would only be built much later, in 1856.)

The founders of Scull and Bone did not adopt an elaborate statement of principles and rules on the order of Phi Beta Kappa’s, with which they were most familiar as officers and members of the Alpha of Connecticut. In the words of Lyman Bagg, “[The society] is believed to have little or no regard for any formal, written constitution, but to be governed chiefly by tradition in its customs and usages.” This judgment was echoed in an 1876 pamphlet, titled The Fall of Skull and Bones, written by the “Order of the File and Claw,” which claimed to have broken into the Bones tomb: “Skull and Bones has no secrets beyond a few that may be handed down annually by word of mouth, and no written constitution beyond a few directions similar to the suggestions appended to the [freshman society] Delta Kappa by-laws.”52 To the creation of their customs and usages they turned.


The young men in No. 122 North College cared more about the raison d’être of their society than its name, and seem not to have selected one when Wood, as secretary, was asked to post a notice of a meeting in the customary place. “When I wrote the first Notice for a meeting of the Club, to be put up on the side of the Chapel door[,]” he recalled with italicized emphasis, “I sketched over the notice a Skull & Cross-bones—the thought of the moment—simply to attract attention and make a sensation among outsiders! Which it did very decidedly and excited a great deal of talk among the students. The Skull & Bones had no real significance whatsoever. I put this device on every subsequent notice during the year [1832–33], and so it came to be a permanent badge of the Club.”53

So, Russell’s prank with the ghostly white sheet in the summer of 1832, which perhaps subconsciously inspired Wood’s invention of the notice’s symbol the following winter, impressed upon the new society a name which, for all its lack of forethought, changed the course of society nomenclature at Yale. However unplanned, the Bonesmen’s incorporation of the symbol in their formal campus publication printings had a similar effect, in making the new group’s name not Greek letters but (as it was to be printed in the Yale Banner) the American-sounding “Scull and Bone Society.” This formulation was to influence the name of its immediate successor Scroll and Key, and all the Yale senior societies which came after.

The Yale senior societies’ imitators to come on other campuses aped the naming style: “Axe and Coffin” at Columbia College, “Owl and Padlock” at the University of Michigan, “Skull and Serpent” and “Owl and Wand” at Wesleyan University, Dartmouth’s “Sphinx,” and Georgetown’s “Second Society of Stewards,” but the trend finally went no further. As Bagg was to conclude in 1872: “There is no special difficulty in imitating the peculiar names and mummeries of the Yale senior societies, but the gaining of a similar prestige and influence is quite another matter. It is the high character of their members, not their names and forms and ceremonies, which give the Yale societies their fame.”54 It was decided by its members as early as 1834 that there would be no chapters of the Order of Scull and Bone at other colleges.

The spelling “scull” was neither illiterate nor meant to be provocative. From the first edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, through the edition of 1850, the word is spelled “scull,” to mean “the brain pan” (although Webster also includes the spelling “skull,” with essentially the same definitions). The inclusion of the alternate spellings was not the result of Webster’s desire to reform English orthography for Americans, but rather arose from his cut-and-paste method of dictionary making: both spellings are employed in the eighth edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1799), a copy of which Webster marked up for his own dictionary’s text.55

Linonia, the original Yale College literary society of 1753, was named for the goddess of the flax, λίνον, the pagan divinity most familiar to those days of homespun.56 Since virtually all other fraternities formed in the 1830s in America were Greek-letter societies, like their progenitor Phi Beta Kappa and including Yale’s own Chi Delta Theta of 1821,57 common English words based on Wood’s sketch inadvertently characterized the new club to be a different thing. The spelling of “scull” could not have escaped the influence of the great American lexicographer in any event. Webster was a member of the Yale class of 1778 (graduating two years before the creation of the Alpha of Connecticut, although subsequently made an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa), living at the time in New Haven on Temple Street, where Silliman College now stands, writing his dictionary when Skull and Bones was founded.

In 1832, there were no Yale undergraduate publications that discussed student current affairs. Although the Yale Literary Magazine was to be founded in 1836 by some men who later joined Bones, it did not treat of such subjects, as its name indicated. It is to the yearly Yale Banner we must turn for contemporary reporting. A four-page newspaper, the Banner began in 1841 as a result of the firemen’s riot of that year, then stopped after four numbers, only to reappear in November 1842. That edition contained a catalogue of the members of college and of several senior societies. It appeared annually thereafter, both as a catalogue of the names of the students in all departments and a record of college honors and associations.58

The issue of November 3, 1842, listed as the first society at the top of its left-hand column the “Scull and Bone Society.” In the issue of 1846, this became the “Skull and Bone Society;” in 1847, the spelling reverted to “Scull;” in 1850, it became “Scull and Bones,” and not until the issue of October 1, 1852, did the society’s name become the now familiar “Skull and Bones.”59 However spelled, the club’s name and its symbols were (at least mildly) frightening, just as Wood confessedly intended in choosing them.


The Bones “badge” was the analog to Allyn’s Phi Beta Kappa “jewel.” As noted in the History of the Class of 1834 of Yale College, printed in 1875 as part of the fortieth reunion celebrations by the class succeeding Russell’s: “The senior society known as ‘The Skull and Bones’ first took a recognized form in our class by the wearing of a badge by its members, and perpetuated itself by electing members from the next class.” (The same narrative records that “the Phi Beta Kappa Society had a nominal existence, but hardly any exercises were held by our class,” which suggests not only that the Bones members had decided to become more ostentatious, but that the society’s creation had seriously wounded the vitality of Phi Beta Kappa.)60

Wearing a badge, in such a small membership group, avoided the need for a secret handshake, or “grip.” From Phi Beta Kappa on in the history of American fraternities, the grip allowed fraternity men to verify that a stranger was a brother, as all men in the same fraternity would have the same secret grip. If a man was not wearing his badge, or it was suspected (as was to happen in Yale College history) that the badge was false, all one had to do was shake his hand in order to confirm his membership.61 The public sporting of senior society badges at Yale, and the lack of chapters at other colleges which would bring unknown members to annual conventions, meant that no tradition of secret grips was to be part of the senior society experience.

The Phi Beta Kappa medal at Yale was closely modeled on the one brought north from Virginia by Elisha Parmele. It was a watch-key, to be worn on a watch chain, silver and square, with “S P” (Societas Philosophia) and the date of December 5, 1776, on one side, and on the reverse, the Greek letters for Phi Beta Kappa, with three stars above, and a hand with a pointing index figure below, topped by a ribbon-like device. Chi Delta Theta (ΧΔΘ), founded in 1821 and expiring in 1844, to which approximately one-quarter to one-third of the senior class was elected, also had an ornament, in the form of a triangular gold pendant.62 The men of Scull and Bone opted for something simpler.

The society’s badge evolved from a flat, square breastpin used through 1848 to the three-dimensional “crab” known since that time. “Its badge of solid gold,” Bagg recorded in 1871, “consists of the face of a skull, supported by the crossed thigh bones, with a band, bearing the number ‘322,’ in place of the lower jaw. Its original badge was a rectangular gold plate, about the size and shape of the present Beta Xi pin, whereon the skull-and-bones design and the numeral were simply engraved. Its wood-cut vignette represents the emblems, and is identical with that employed for general purposes in college papers elsewhere. . . . In the cut formally used, the design was smaller than that now in vogue; but there never had been added to the simple emblems anything in the way of ornament or embellishment. The pin is sometimes called a ‘crab’ from its supposed resemblance to that animal.”63

The badge was constantly worn by active members, by day upon the shirt bosom or necktie, and by night upon the nightgown. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, only graduate members wore the badge upon the vest, where for the first few years they displayed it quite regularly; members of the faculty, except the occasional freshman tutors, never displayed a society badge when engaged in their official duties. The Yale Courant in 1873 jibed that “the Skull and Bones man worships his death’s head and cross bones, as a devout Catholic adores the cross.” In her 2006 novel Secret Society Girl, Diana Peterfreund captured the paradox of combined display and secrecy: “[O]ur pat little phrases, our I can’t talk about its and our I’d tell you but I’d have to kill yous are a society member’s way of bragging without breaking the oath of secrecy.”64

Rituals, in Skull and Bones and the other senior societies to come, like rituals in in human affairs generally, have a function more likely to be experienced than to be reasoned upon. Romancing couples dining with candlesticks and crystal, suitors on bended knees with rings in hand, or a club’s members meeting for regular dinners uniformly dressed in required attire are unlikely to reflect at length on why they are performing these rituals. Nevertheless, they sense that, as lovers, suitors, or just hungry human beings, they perform them not as necessary elements of the romantic dinner, the marriage proposal, or the club gathering, but as essential particulars of human interaction.

Indeed, it has been argued that doctrines exist as much for the sake of rituals as the rituals do for the sake of doctrines. While doctrines can divide, rituals help assimilate doctrines into forms by which they could be experienced, perhaps even better than they can be logically understood. The ritual and symbolic elements of secret societies generally are very important; the wide and long enduring diffusion of a Masonic element seems to go far beyond the point at which any merely utilitarian purpose could be served by borrowing. In the realm of the Yale senior societies, candidates are not queried on their views of the doctrines or tenets of the association, but instead are firmly but tacitly presented with and trained in the means of experiencing what they might learn of those doctrines, through those rituals.65

Such rituals soon attached to the display of badges. They were worn in the center of the cravat when photographs of individuals began to be taken for club records in 1856, and they featured in the young men’s carte de visite engravings from 1852. The College Courant for July 3, 1869, noted that, following their initiation the night before, the “newly fledged [senior society members] don their pins at ten this morning.” The Bones pin was removed from the shirtfront or necktie and shifted to the waistcoat in the 1887–88 class year, and the annual campus journal The Horoscopecommended the society for being “the first to notice and to remedy” this sign of “ostentatious bearing” (while the men of Scroll and Key continued to wear their badges on their neckties). The earliest national magazine report is found in Munsey’s for June 1894, declaring that the Bones badge was then worn “on the lower left side of the waistcoat,” and that “even the most bewitching young woman is warned not to make any remark about [a Yale man’s] badge (which, by the way, is supposed never to leave his person, even during a bath, when it is carried in his mouth) for the student will feel compelled to receive your question in absolute silence.”66

The badge fetish had not changed much halfway through the twentieth century. The Harvard Lampoon for November 1949 contained George Plimpton’s article on Yale’s secret societies. Plimpton reported that “the Skull and Bones insists that the member must constantly wear his Society badge or pin. It is said that member will wear it on his pajamas at night, hold it in his hand or pop it in his mouth when taking a shower.”67 In 1913, the Lampoon had mocked the Bonesmen’s habit of secreting the badge in the mouth to keep the hands free, in a poem published following Harvard’s 15–5 victory over Yale in that fall’s football game. Explaining the Elis’ loss, this chronicled the misfortune of the mythical (but name-rhymable) “Sir Arthur Jones/The mightiest of the knights of Yale/A member—Sh!—of Bones”:

The pass went high; it struck his lips

And bared his gleaming pin—

A rush of air was heard and then,

The ball lay, punctured in,

A murmur ran around the stands—

“Thus Harvard’s warriors win.”

A true and sadder story of a Bonesman and his badge also has a Harvard connection. The great American literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen graduated from Yale in 1923, where he was managing editor of the Yale Daily News, editor of the Yale Literary Magazine, and vice president of Dwight Hall; “F.O.” won the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize as the outstanding senior, was class orator, and went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.68 Having suffered depression before while writing his 1941 masterpiece of literary criticism, American Renaissance, he was on leave of absence from his position as a professor of English literature at Harvard in 1950. On April 1 of that year, he leaped to his death from a window on the twelfth floor of Boston’s Manger Hotel. Investigators later concluded that he had taken his badge from his shirt and left it on the dresser. “Then suddenly remembering that it should never leave his person, he refastened it to his shirt and content in the knowledge that he who was about to die had saluted, he went to the open window and jumped. The policeman who arrived on the scene not long afterwards found the pin beside the body, glanced at it indifferently, and put it with the rest of the deceased’s effects . . .”69

The Matthiessen suicide is not, however, the most remarkable story of a Skull and Bones badge at a member’s death. That sad distinction belongs to Edward Foster Blake, a New Haven native of the class of 1858, editor of the Lit., an athlete with artistic ability, and winner of the Third English Composition prize. One of thirty-seven students from the North in his class to enlist for the Union, he entered service in October 1861 and was commissioned adjutant of the 5th Connecticut infantry. By early 1862 he was campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 12 Blake was promoted to major; after a short furlough, he returned to his regiment and was killed in Virginia at the battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. His body was never recovered. An imprisoned brother officer later reported that near where he had lain wounded, the corpse of a dead major was rifled by an enemy officer. The Confederate showed him what he had taken, which included a gold skull and crossbones pin.70

As so often in the mirrored histories of Yale’s two oldest senior societies, there is a Scroll and Key story to match. William H. Vanderbilt of the class of 1893, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, according to newspaper reports pledged Scroll and Key in his junior year, but died of typhoid fever two days before the afternoon of Tap Day; his class elected to wear mourning for thirty days. While his name does thus not appear in the society’s catalogue for the club of 1893, the young man was buried with a Keys badge on his person. In his memory, William’s parents donated Vanderbilt Hall (erected 1894), costing half a million dollars and acclaimed as the “finest and most expensive dormitory in the world.”

This ornament of the Gilded Age boasted wainscoted living rooms, modern plumbing, manteled fireplaces, and steam heat, connected to a campus-wide system (by 1899, Yale charged $10 a week to live in Vanderbilt, and 75 cents a week to live in the Old Brick Row dormitories). When women were at last admitted to Yale College in 1969, the administration housed them, not least for security, in Vanderbilt Hall, where the only entrance from the Old Campus to which it turns its back is though a central arch (since the staircase entries fronted on Chapel Street and the street-front driveway gates were always locked).71 Thus, the line from the old Yale to the new ran through a senior society membership, redeemed in the grave when frustrated in life.


Another feature of Phi Beta Kappa was its production of membership catalogues. The Alpha of Connecticut published its first printed booklet in 1808, a second in 1818, and another in 1832, with which Russell and his Bones cofounders would have been immediately familiar. The Yale format was fairly plain, simply listing members alphabetically (the deceased’s names asterisked), organized into columns headed “Names,” “Places of Abode,” “Col Title” (senior, junior, or A.B.), and “Time of admission,” the latter by month, day, and year. This arrangement was adopted for the Phi Beta Kappa national catalogue in 1811, and then altered in 1839 to order the names by classes and omitting the college titles.72

The catalogue for Scull and Bones, the first of which was printed in 1841, and used thereafter annually to check attendance at the annual conventions, was more intriguingly designed and mysteriously annotated. It was distributed to members in unbound sheets, and the first page displayed, in Old English capitals in a semi-oval between two black lines, the letters OTIRUNBCDITF. The members were listed by the class years, anticipating the change still to come in the Phi Beta Kappa national catalogues. The pages were printed on one side only, each six inches by four, sized to be glued on to blank pages added by the recipient to his bound volume. Each right-hand page, surrounded by a heavy black border, listed the members of the year, fifteen names written out alphabetically and in full, with city and state of residence, all in Old English text.73

The title page bore the society cut, with the words “Period 2. Decade 3.” preceding the list of the founders of the club of 1833. In succeeding issues, there appears a similar set of phrases: for example, “Period 2. Decade 4.” heads the page for the class of 1843, and so on for each successive decade, the “Period” always being “2,” but the integer for “Decade” increasing each time by one. So, for the class of 1851, the legend is “P. 249.—D.49,” and for the class of 1967, “P.365.—D.165”—the “D” being always two less than the year of graduation. Put another way, the “D” of a club is always 1,802 less than the class year. Bagg’s memoir half-translated and half-speculated: “What these ‘Periods’ and ‘Decades’ and ‘P.s’ and ‘D.s’ may signify is known only to the initiated; but, as the catalogue is never shown to outsiders, they are probably not put there for mystification only. That the founders are put down as belonging to the ‘third decade of the second period’ may seem to make in favor of the German university theory [that Yale’s club was a chapter of a European society], in the minds of many; and the blank space in place of the eleventh man’s name in the list of the founders, may perhaps be thought a straw in the same direction.”

Official notices to the graduate members were written upon black-bordered paper of the catalogue’s size, with or without the society cut at the head, and the Bones notices through the mails were enclosed in black-edged envelopes, bearing at the end a printed request to the postmaster to return them to the society’s post-office box if not delivered within a certain time, and sealed with a skull and bones and the letters “S.C.B.” (Skull and Cross Bones) impressed upon black wax.74


Codes and ciphers are techniques for disguising a message so that only the intended recipient can read it. The non-member readers of Bones-generated literature—its catalogues, campus posters, invitations, and other notices to members—were provoked with seeing initials and numbers that are otherwise nowhere defined, as in the “Ps” and “Ds” heading each club’s annual list of members.

On its printed ephemera such as invitations to the annual convention held on the evening of commencement and on other communications has always appeared the number “322,” deemed by most commentators to mean “the year 322 B.C.,” although “B.C.” nowhere appears. That supposition, wrote Bagg, “connects it with the names of Alexander or Demosthenes. What these heroes may have in common with the Skull and Bones society, aside from departing this life on or just before the year in question, is not very plain; but it is pretty well established that the Bones’ ‘322’ refers to that year B.C., whatever its additional significance.” 322 B.C. is indeed the accepted date of Demosthenes’s death. Other theories hold that the number signifies the year of the society’s founding, “1832;” or that it is “3+2+2” or “7” which is said to be the number of founders of the class of 1833 (actually, the Phi Beta Kappa six), who persuaded the other eight to join them; or that it is the product of “3 × 2 × 2,” or “12,” the midnight hour of the meetings’ breaking up.75 Even the street number on High Street—64—can be part of this game (32 × 2).

Skull and Bones could not plausibly claim an origin legend, but the appropriation of “322” had something of that effect. Legendary accounts of the antiquity of origins of the orders themselves are common characteristics of secret societies and, as sociologist Noel Gist has written, are “perhaps no more chimerical or grotesque than those sometimes associated with the beginnings of such well-established institutions as the church and the state. In all instances they may be thought of as unifying influences; and whether taken literally or symbolically they represent the collective property of the group and add to its cohesiveness and its permanence.”76

The society even claimed its own system of time. On the mornings of Yale commencement in the nineteenth century, at the head of the editorial columns of the New Haven daily newspapers appeared public announcements of “The annual convention of the Order,” with the date followed by “VI. S.B.T.” Bagg insisted that “a current guess—and a wrong one—interprets ‘S.B.T.’ as ‘Skull and Bones Temple.’ A more likely reading makes ‘T.’ stand for ‘time,’ and so interprets the notice, ‘Six minutes before eight,’ the hour eight being ‘Bones time.’ The meetings are held on Thursday evening, commencing exactly at eight o’clock. . . .” (Thursdays may have ultimately been chosen as the weekly meeting night because Wednesday evenings were taken up by the literary society meetings, which all were expected to attend.) In his 1949 article on the Yale secret societies written for the Harvard Lampoon, George Plimpton published another speculation. “If at 12:00 A.M. one Bones man asks another the time, he is answered ‘It’s 12:05 S.B.T.’, meaning its 12:05 Skull and Bones time. Whether the Bonesmen consider themselves five minutes ahead of the rest of mankind or the grandfather clock in the Bones tomb has been five minutes fast for over a hundred years is a matter for conjecture.”77

The society’s code words were ways to intrigue and confound outsiders, styled “neutrals” by campus publications, as was its signature number, “322,” but there was an adopted language as well, with a different end to achieve within the society. Meeting in a “temple,” initiates are “knights,” and graduate members are “patriarchs,” a term first used in the records of a meeting in 1836: “Several of the Patriarchs visited the Club this evening, and they and ourselves discussed a cold collation with great vigor. We would recommend all succeeding generations to treat the Patriarchs when honored with their company.” The tone of welcome was more tempered in the records for 1850: “The famished Patriarchs favored us with their presence, drank our coffee, devoured our oysters, and departed as they came.”

Among members, the society was known as the “Eulogian Club,”78 leading to the internal circumlocution sometimes found repeated in their correspondence to Yale newspapers, referring to the society as the “so-called Skull and Bones.” Sometimes in campus periodicals its members were styled “Eulogians” (“eulogia” is Greek for “a blessing,” and is applied in ecclesiastical usage to the object blessed; in the Benedictine Rule, monks are forbidden to receive “litteras, eulogias, vel quaelibet munuscula” without the abbot’s leave, with “eulogias” translated as a blessing, but seeming to mean any kind of present79). The nomenclature of Skull and Bones has a Greek flavor, as that of Scroll and Key was in contradistinction to be Roman, and Wolf’s Head, in its own choice, Egyptian, each group appropriating its special version of antiquity of origin. Outsiders, reflecting the classification made in the ancient Greek language (barberoi) and literature the students were compelled to study, were called “barbarians,” in contradistinction to the Bonesmen’s self-styled Greeks.80

In this, too, the young men of Scull and Bone were absorbing what was in the air, as well as in their prepatory education. For this class, The Laws of Yale College for 1832 mandated that “no one shall be admitted, unless he shall be able to read, translate, and parse Cicero’s Select Orations, Virgil, Sallust, Graeca Minor, and the Greek Testament.” Beyond this, the cult of Greece—Philhellenism—was a romantic manifestation of considerable influence at the time, in painting, poetry, and architecture. Beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, Americans “renounced their tenacious attachment to republican Rome and turned to the art, literature, and landscape of Greece. . . . Greece now emerged as the province of the spiritual and the ideal, the seat of art and learning, representing what was at once unique and universally true.” The dichotomy between Greece and Rome that emerged in the antebellum era was summed up in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “To Helen” of 1831, celebrating being “brought . . . home/To the glory that was Greece/and the grandeur that was Rome.” The romantic English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, had famously gone off to fight in the Greek War for Independence from the Ottomans, dying at Missolonghi in 1824.81

The city of New Haven itself participated in the vogue by organizing a fund-raising campaign to establish better schools for Greek children, and the town’s litterateur of the 1820s and 1830s, James Gates Percival, wrote poetic pleas in the Byronic manner for the independence of Greece. The students of Yale College contributed $500 to a New York committee raising funds to aid the beleaguered Hellenes against “their barbarous assailant” the Turks. As late as 1834, New Haveners were still interested in “the cause,” with crowds attending the lectures of Mr. G. A. Pedicaris on “Modern Greece.” Seizing upon Greek civilization as thematic inspiration for coded but inspiring references was a simple matter for a college club initially dedicated to training itself in extemporaneous speech techniques.

As for Demosthenes, in 1805 his work was added to the Yale curriculum’s volumes of the best Greek authors, Graeca Minora and Graeca Majora. For the junior class, until 1875, Demosthenes was included with Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Sophocles, and others in the study of Greek authors—but only Demosthenes was famous for arduous training to make himself a better speaker. By 1829, the course of instruction in Professor Goodrich’s class on rhetoric for seniors showcased the “Oration of Demosthenes for the Crown,” as “the chef d’oeuvre of ancient eloquence.” A life-size statue of Demosthenes, carved in Rome by E. S. Bartholomew, was placed in the corner of Linonia’s room in Alumni Hall.82 The Bonesmen were not always so reverent toward their oratorical hero: a question that is often repeated in their records is, “How did Demosthenes have such numerous progeny when he carried his stones in his mouth?”

Still, the tags abounding on the public notices were in Latin, befitting their intense grounding in that language, usually with puns on the word bonum, for “good,” such as these legends on invitations to the annual conventions: “Nisi in bonis amicitia esse not potest” (“No friendship can exist except in good men,” from Cicero, De Amicitia, 5, I); “Grandiaque effosis mirabitur ossa sepulchris” (“He will wonder at the huge bones when [their] tombs have been dug up,” from Virgil, Georgics, I. 497); and “Quid dicam de ossibus?” Cic. N.D.2; 55 Nil nisi bonum. Prov.” (“What should I say about the Bones? Nothing except good.”)83 Translation was not difficult for on-campus readers and graduates: Yale did not abolish the Latin requirement for applicants and degree awards until 1931.84

As an internal code, not Greek-inspired, each member bears a nickname within the tomb, to be used only within the society hall and never outside its walls, by which he (and now she) is known to his initiated classmates. Some knights are assigned traditional names by the outgoing seniors (“Magog,” the junior purportedly most experienced with women, and “Gog,” the least likely to have been sexually successful; “Long Devil,” the delegation’s tallest member, whose duties after the formation of Scroll and Key included posting his society’s notice of meeting above the Keys notice on the chapel door; “Little Devil,” the shortest; and “Boaz,” the varsity football captain). Magogs have included, in their respective years, William Howard Taft (1878), his son Robert A. Taft (1910), and Olympic swimming champion Donald Schollander (1968). Legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and Harvard professor Matthiessen were Little Devils.

Others, not so distinguished by physical characteristics or prior leadership positions, choose their own knightly titles. The romantic period of literature which encompassed the birth of the society produced, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s, a long list of high-flown pseudonyms, with members named Harold, Sidney, Arthur, Charlemagne, Launfel, Endymion, and Delores. Rowdier names, such as Caliban, Brombones, Dingbat, and Suffering Mike then elbowed aside the earlier titles. The literary taste of the mid–nineteenth century, exemplified by Rob Roy, Roderick, Waverly, Dombey, Pickwick, Toby Weller, Barkis, and Jingle, gave way to the underworld in the characters of Moloch, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Moloch, Pluto, Charon, Baal (Henry Luce’s name in 1920), and Caliban (his clubmate Briton Hadden’s), and to the majesty of the warring north with Odin, Thor, Tancred, Rollo, and Eric the Red. Vietnam War historians were thrilled to learn that McGeorge Bundy, Bones 1940 and national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, styled himself “Odin,” for the Norse god of war (as well as, the erudite Bundy might have observed, of poetry, wisdom, and the dead). It is said George W. Bush, the second President Bush, whose father George H. W. was “Barebones,” chose “Temporary,” when he could initially think of nothing else.85


The most famous of Russell’s innovations for his society and ultimately for Yale College was the method, in the words of the class history of 1834 quoted above, of the group’s “perpetuat[ing] itself by electing members from the next class.” Belden’s Sketches of Yale College of 1843, published by an undergraduate a decade after the founding of Bones and a year after the creation of Scroll and Key, contains a discussion of the badgeless “College Societies” of the Linonian, the Brothers in Unity, and the Calliopean, but also contains a subsequent section on “Class Societies,” naming Phi Beta Kappa, Chi Delta Theta, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and other senior societies (soon vanished) called Sword and Crown, and Dart and Star, with cuts of the badges of each.86 However, the election process for these senior societies, as opposed to the characteristics of their members, is not described in Belden’s book.

Instead we must, and presumably safely can, assume that the election was offered to each of those fifteen of the very first successor club of 1834, from a list developed and then pared down by the seniors, on one or more evenings, who were approached by a representative of the society, or perhaps a substantial delegation of members. In the chapter titled “Forerunners of Tap Day” his Yale Yesterdays of 1915, Clarence Deming ruefully noted that “What one seeks of their antique customs must be taken not from the published word but from the lips and memories of old graduates who, some of them, recall the Yale happenings of a half-century or more ago.”87

Still, there are two published records, predating Deming’s book, in the Yale Alumni Weekly. The first, in the issue of June 25, 1905, was a letter from “A Graduate of the [Eighteen] Seventies.” “When one society was alone in the field [meaning Scull and Bone],” he wrote, “its election was held on a movable day on which each elected Junior was summoned with elaborate privacy to meet a representative of the society at a secret tryst, not earlier than midnight. This had no significance above the rites of other societies and was harmless, if unnecessary, until another society [Scroll and Key] came into the field.” The second, “Forerunners of Tap Day,” an anonymous article published in May 1910, told of how “[a]fter the Society lists had been made a whole night was spent in the election. And next morning the Societies marched from their halls in a body to Chapel, partly as a bit of impressionism, partly as a kind of theoretical covering of their work by a quasi-religious function.”88

Since there were no other societies for the senior class graduating in 1834 except Phi Beta Kappa, which still elected its new members in scheduled meetings, and Chi Delta Theta, the “Graduate of the Seventies” may not have been cognizant of how few societies existed in Yale College fully four decades before his own time, and was probably entirely too casual in finding “no significance above the rites of other societies.” Surely midnight meetings that resulted in the newly elected sporting their badges the morning after would have attracted keen interest on campus. In any event, elections seem to have been proffered quietly and privately, mostly by word of mouth and without any special etiquette. Notes were distributed by both Skull and Bones and, after 1842, Scroll and Key—“Sir, you are a candidate. By order of our order,” or “Sir, you have the honor of being selected,” and signed with the name of the respective club secretary—but these were customarily given out on the following day.89

The “movable day” did not long stay movable. From at least July 1842 until Bagg’s time in the late 1860s, senior society elections were given out in the period from eight to ten P.M. on the Thursday evening in late May or early June which preceded Presentation Day.90 This was a campus ceremony where the names of candidates recommended by the faculty for the degrees were “presented” to the college president and Yale Corporation, and occurred in June or early July, six weeks before commencement. (It was celebrated in much the same way as its successor at Yale, the modern Class Day, “as a kind of ‘domestic commencement,’ without the heat and bustle of the Commencement proper.”) The seniors left the college at the middle of the third term, being on vacation until commencement, which did not occur for them until August or September.91

The election of juniors to Phi Beta Kappa, which most likely provided the timing template for the six members of that Greek-letter fraternity who decided to found Scull and Bone, took place in June. The Junior Exhibition was mounted in April, and juniors who had received high marks and were thus invited to speak used it to demonstrate what they could do in speeches before the president and faculty and friends. The program, which consumed the entire day, featured some thirty-five to forty items, of which a dozen were music (a band played) and the balance were orations, dissertations, and poems in Latin, Greek, or English. An irreverent son of Alphonso Taft was later to say “the first time father ever wore store clothes was at the Junior Ex.”92

The society’s outgoing seniors would want, as they do today, some overlapping time with their newly elected neophytes to teach them customs and traditions. Thus, it seems probable that the day—or rather night—of election, after the working up of a list of candidates in meetings of the senior club, was a function of the Yale College adminstration’s forecast date for Presentation Day in June. It also seems probable that such event was occurring on that periodic basis within a few years of 1833, if not that very first year of election by the outgoing club of Scull and Bone. This reasoned reconstruction, if correct, provides a historical basis for the scheduling of Tap Day for late May or early June, as it became more elaborate, involving more societies and more participants. By 1849, the formal notice of election from Bones, sealed with black wax, was on black-bordered stationery (watermarked “Paris”!) enclosing the cut of the skull and crossed femurs, beneath which was the handwritten note of the outgoing club’s secretary: “Sir, You are a Candidate. By Order of our Order.”

If election for Scull and Bone was some sort of judgment day in the spring of the year, what were the outward and visible signs of intellectual and social distinction? There were then, in a class of fewer than ninety souls, no ongoing campus publications (the Yale Literary Magazine was not to be founded until 1836, the Yale Banner until 1841, and the Yale [Daily] News until 1878); no Greek-letter fraternities other than Phi Beta Kappa and the somewhat smaller Chi Delta Theta; and no faculty-awarded prizes for performance or scholarship named for alumni donors, as were to come later in the nineteenth century with the Townsend Premiums for English Composition (1844) and DeForest Prize for English Oration (1852). There were no heroes of organized sports: crew, in emulation of the eights of Oxford and Cambridge, did not begin until the 1850s, and “base-ball” competitions with the “nines” and football games with the “twenties” until the 1870s.93

Instead, in 1833, the first and foremost individual distinction as a basis for society election was a man’s “stand” in the junior class, high marks in the grading system which first began in American higher education at Yale in 1813 on the now familiar 4.0 or 400 point scale. President Woolsey is credited with having instituted the “biennial” at Yale in 1830, “a much dreaded period of written examination at the close of the sophomore and senior years in all studies of the two preceding years.” A stand of 2.50 or above was required for faculty appointment at the Junior Exhibition. A student not maintaining an average of 2 in all his classes in a term were obliged to leave college, and not permitted reentry until he could pass an examination in all branches of study attended by his class.94 (Then and later, of course, “high stand” was no certain indicator of success in late life. Chauncey Depew, class of 1856, Bones, and U.S. senator from New York, was to note in his memoirs: “It is a singular commentary on the education of that time that the students who won the highest honors and carried off the college prizes, which could only be done by excelling in Latin, Greek, and mathematics, were far outstripped in after-life by their classmates who fell below their high standards of collegiate scholarship but were distinguished for an all-around interest in subjects not featured in the college curriculum.”95)

From 1833 through 1843, Bonesmen were valedictorians and salutatorians twice for each distinction. In the thirty-six classes after 1844, ending with the class of 1878 (including two of Alphonso Taft’s sons, Peter, valedictorian of the class of 1867, with the best record ever achieved to that date, and William Howard, salutatorian in 1878), twenty-one valedictorians and twenty-three salutatorians were members of that society. With Russell (first in his class) and Taft (third “high stand”) and four other members of Phi Beta Kappa, Bonesmen began as they meant to go on.96 It must however be noted, in the spirit of irony, that their meeting debate topic for February 15, 1833, was the question, “Are college honors beneficial to education,” and the decision from the evening’s chair, Alphonso Taft, was “in the negative.” Nevertheless, according to the Yale correspondent of the New Haven Evening Register in 1878, in response to a letter from Russell himself, it was said to be “the fact that the valedictorian of each class, in which number [Russell] had the honor to be, received the first election into [the Bones] fraternity.”97

Another measure was the Townsend Prizes in English Composition, with premiums of $12 each “to the authors in the Senior class of the best original compositions in the English language,” first awarded in 1844, with about five men honored each year: through 1876, members of Bones accounted for forty-nine of the 102 prizewinners. Here, competitive zeal may have overcome fair play. It is reported that, in the sprint of 1857, the librarian of Linonia, a Bonesman, locked the literary society’s library from inside, slipped out through a back window with help from a clubmate, and then, when Townsend Prize candidates were unable to gain library access for “statistics” and “authority” for their presentations, he claimed that “the key-hole [was] already occupied by somebody inside.”

The Yale Review, recounting the affront—“He was made keeper of Linonia keys for a different purpose than to show exclusive favoritism to fourteen of his fellow mortals”—ran a “pome” for the occasion, and recast the narrative as about accomplices “Jack” and “Gill”:

Never was hope forlorner

For man to skin—for man to skin—

But “Townsends” must be taken,

By “Skull and Bones”—by “Skull and Bones,”

Though archives were forsaken

And skinned with groans—and skinned with groans—

And though Gill’s face was burning

With shame ’tis true—with shame ’tis true,

A “Townsend” he was earning,

For “three, two, two”—for “three, two, two.”

For out the window leaping,

In S.B.T.—in S.B.T.,

He to his room was creeping,

Fast as could be—fast as could be—

A bag of books he toted,

With learning’s tomes—with learning’s tomes,

To take the “Townsend” noted,

For “Skull and Bones”—For “Skull and Bones.”98

This tradition of tapping at least a few men of the highest scholarly achievement, who naturally enough tended to perpetuate themselves in their successors, meant that more frequently than not a small band of Bones members was carrying on postgraduate work in divinity or the law in New Haven, sometimes coupled with service as Yale tutors. As such, they were constantly available both as object lessons of worldly success and, if need be, as recruiters or instruments in pledging. Some of those tutors would later become professors and administrators. Of the fifty-four living Yale professors in all departments and schools which William Kingsley was to commemorate in his 1879 history of Yale College, fifteen were members of Skull and Bones, and one of Scroll and Key; the administrative officers were almost all Bonesmen.99

Still, this virtue was to have a defect, which affected as well those who were not the class’s top scholars. The society’s emphasis on achievement could not fail to attract a large proportion of men, accepting membership, whose postgraduate careers would be distinguished, and successive classes of such men, year in and year out, certainly imbued the organization with discipline and a high seriousness, with both good and ill effects. At its best, such discipline and gravity immeasurably strengthened the society in public opinion on and off the campus, and confirmed its hold upon its members. Yet at their worst, these traits led to attitudes as well as overt acts of arrogance, to obsessive and absurd exactions of respect, and to self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement, for which Bones was to pay dearly in the future.

Second as a qualifier for membership were known oratorical skills exhibited and polished as freshman and sophomores in the large debating societies Linonia, Brothers in Unity, and Calliope, to one of which all members of the class belonged. These experiences led, with appropriate high stand, to being selected by the faculty for the honor of participation in the Junior Exhibition in the latter part of April. Those to be named class poet and class orator, however, were not identified until graduation, nor until 1848 were the twenty or so “oration men” given their appointments by the faculty to speak at commencement exercises (two or three in each class giving “philosophical orations,” the Yale nineteenth-century version of summa cum laude). Thus, while adding to the prestige of the society at the close of senior year, these honors could not figure in election at the end of the incoming class’s junior year.

However, it is notable that in the twenty classes through 1852, Skull and Bones elected six men in the junior year spring term who were to be class poets the following year, and six who became the class orator (the class orator, who gave the valedictory address at the graduation ceremonies, was an elective position; the valedictorian—a faculty appointment—did not automatically speak to and for the class at commencement). And for the first fifteen years of the DeForest Prize, endowed in 1852 for the best oration from the senior class (with a gold medal worth one hundred dollars, the largest such award then given in any American college), a Bones member won ten times, chosen from among each year’s five Townsend finalists.100

Of course, not everyone kept up the standard. William C. Whitney, Bones 1863 (later corporation counsel of the New York City, secretary of the navy under President Cleveland, and founder of the Whitney family fortune), was widely acknowledged as a brilliant writer and speaker but shocked his classmates when, delivering his commencement oration, he stopped his recitation, took out his manuscript, and read it through to the end—the first commencement address that had ever been read at Yale. When queried later by his clubmate William Graham Sumner (to become the American theorist of Social Darwinism), “Why didn’t you say it from memory?,” Whitney replied, “It was too much bother to memorize so many words.”101

President Theodore Woolsey, promoting competitive scholarship, made the intellectual contest clearer, by publishing the names of winners of prizes and scholarships in the college catalogue, commencing in 1848 to list the ranking of seniors in the commencement program: two groups of colloquies (respectable students), three of disputes (better performance), orations (top tier of the class), a very few philosophical orations, and finally the salutatory and valedictory orations. In his Memories of Yale Life and Men, college president Timothy Dwight of the class of 1849, among the first to be affected by the change, was to remember: “College standing, as connected with the work of the recitation room—rank in scholarship, as determined by the marks in instructors’ books from day to day—was a matter of greater moment to the universal thought. Men had this door of success and distinction open to them. The other doors were not many in number. . . . [T]hose who were moved by ambition, or by higher motives, were constrained to seek their reward either from the records kept by tutors and professors, or in the sphere of writing or debating.” Woolsey’s scholarly appointments were then made with juniors, and published for all the world to see in the college catalogues for 1856–57 and thereafter.102

Third as an election enhancer, as always with any club claiming exclusivity, was social popularity or political prowess. These had been requisite, along with scholarship, for election to Phi Beta Kappa from its founding at Yale over half a century before. These qualities were also manifested by winning officerships in Phi Beta Kappa, like Russell’s secretaryship, and the presidencies of the literary societies Linonia and Brothers, where each had three presidents during the school year. Being the “first president,” the president for the first term when new members were being proselytized, was the most coveted. The brightest men, as Chauncey Depew noted, are not always the ablest in the larger world outside academia, nor alternatively are they necessarily the sturdiest materials on which to support an institution devoted to sociable relaxation and cooperative effort. The key personal characteristic of such men is their likely value to the group, “a set of men,” as a member of Keys in the class of 1845 was to phrase it, “above the ordinary ability who, free from the proximity of cranks, dullards, and the immorally disposed, should be able to think and act together.”103

Fourth, there were always those men in the election class who did not necessarily meet any of these first three qualification merits (scholarship, debating skills, or team building), but whose personalities were nevertheless attractive to the electors for reasons of singularity or for achieving balance or variety in the incoming delegation—in 1837 and again in 1839, the only South Americans in the student body, scions of Brazilian plantation owners, were elected. (As Time magazine was to phrase it a century later, “Quipsters say that Bones always taps thirteen big men, one unknown, and one Armenian,”104 just before the society actually tapped an Armenian American.) Geographical origin was to become one method of balance: for the classes of 1840, 1850, 1860, and 1870, the membership in Skull and Bones was nearly evenly divided between New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the South, and the West, in terms of nativity.105 Still, as these proportions were not those of the student body at large, another pattern is visible.

Although in the index of provinciality, the school drew most of its pupils from Connecticut and the rest of New England, Yale was at this time the college in America which most nearly approximated a national institution, attracting students from all over the then-settled country. In 1788, a graduate reported that throughout the Southeast, Yale was called the “Athens of America,” and it was the large number of Southern and Southwestern students in the latter part of the eighteenth century that first marked Yale as having a national character. During the first quarter of the 1800s, Charleston, South Carolina, ranked third in undergraduate enrollments among American cities, exceeded only by New Haven and New York City. As measured by enrollments for 1828 and the years beyond, Yale College was among the most popular colleges in the country, with its student body increasing by more that 60 percent through 1860.

This meant that, unlike its metropolitan rival Harvard, it was attractive to the nation’s Southerners. In the class of 1831, fully 29 percent were from the South, the highest proportion ever recorded. In 1830, Yale had sixty-nine Southerners, while Harvard had only sixteen, and Princeton seventeen. For the first quarter century of the society, in consequence, their “unknowns” and “Armenians” for Skull and Bones were classmates from the American South. This was true even though it was no small task for the sons of wealthy planters to find success at Yale. “Southerner to us meant first of all slaveholder,” wrote a classmate from Massachusetts. “We liked neither in New England,” and they “were slightly haughty in their bearing toward less favored mortals.”106

The third literary and debating society with members in the first three undergraduate classes, after Linonia and Brothers in Unity, was the “Calliopean Society,” named after the muse of epic poetry, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), and formed in July 1819 by Southerners who took offense at the election of a Northern man to the presidency of Linonia. Because New Englanders did not seek admission “by a long established custom,” the Calliopean’s catalogue of 1839 was to lament, “which appears now to wear the sanctity of law by prescription,” the total membership of the third society necessarily lagged in a college populated predominately by New Englanders. (Such a geographic division was hardly unique to Yale: even before the American Revolution, the literary societies of Whig and Clio at Princeton were similarly riven: a majority of the Southern students entered Whig, while Clio became the usual choice for Northerners.)107

Although small throughout its history (never larger than the sixty-nine members of its formation year, and disbanding in February 1853), Calliope retained its Southern character, and in 1851 all Southerners in the two older literary societies withdrew to join it; the Yale Literary Magazineobserved that “By this change, Calliope . . . has drawn more definitively the sectional differences of the students.”108 This record of successive fissions strongly suggests that, when among the Yankees in New Haven, the Cavalier collegians, for at least a decade before 1832 and for the two decades thereafter, felt a need to bond together protectively with fellow Southerners. Their numbers were proportionately small: students from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana accounted for less than 10 percent of the student body in the period from 1831 to 1841. By the college generations attending in the 1850s, Southerners for the first time in American history found themselves constantly on the defensive, deeply resenting the implications of evil and immorality attributed to slaveholders.109

Planters’ sons at Yale were for the first time confronting rules invented in New England and maintained by New England–trained clergy, suggestive to them of the subordination of slavery. These Southern aristocrats disdained the “Mudsills,” the poor Northern students who had to earn money for college by waiting on tables or by ringing the bell for morning prayers: it chagrined these men and their Northern allies that the poor rustics took college honors. As a historian of the education of the elite offspring of the Old South has written: “Choosing to be in concert at northern schools and having few northern classmates at southern institutions, southern boys congregated to produce a powerful and regionally distinct peer group. The upbringing of southern gentry boys, the wealth of their families, the intentions of their education, and the legacy of slave-holding combined to produce far more truculence and violence among southern college boys than among their northern counterparts.” Enabled by their wealth, they gradually moved out of the primitive college dormitories and into private rooms in New Haven proper; in 1827, fifty-five Southerners lived in college, fifteen in town, while by 1850, only seven took rooms in college, with forty-six in town.110

That the Southerners stood out within a Yale class for these and other reasons cannot be doubted. Their attire was picturesque: “Byronic collar, velvet waistcoat, flying scarf, and sumptuous watch chain, all crowned with the glory of locks which Hyperion might have envied—the cynosure of college fashion.” (One, later elected to Bones, wrote to his sister that he eschewed the customs of the good scholars, who “never even wear clean shirts . . . are always run down at the heel, and don’t comb their hair,” while he “set the fashion of my class,” paying great regard to my cravat, gloves and cut of my coat.”) John Sherwood of the class of 1839 described them thusly in his reminiscences. “They were, of course, the best-dressed men in the class, had more money to spend, and spent it more freely in suppers and other social entertainments than the other students, many of whom, especially from New England, were the beneficiaries of charitable societies, Dorcas societies and other associations who supported them through college with the view of their becoming ministers of the Gospel. . . . The Southern students usually excelled in oratory, but were less successful in competing for prizes in regular studies. . . . Of the twenty-nine Orations, Dissertations and Colloquies given at our Commencement, August 21st, 1839, only a single Dissertation was given by a student from the South.”111

Their mindset was different: the Southern code of honor was fundamental to this behavior. Southern honor was “a system of belief, in which a person has exactly as much worth as others confer upon him.” The idea of honor meant that, in the words of Wilbur Cash’s classic The Mind of the South, “everybody, high and low, was rendered more tetchy.” This ethic contrasted with the Yankee admiration for character, meant to embody “power, permanence, and fortitude . . . [which for] the person of strong character transcended fickle public opinon and fleeting public repute . . . [C]haracter was a democratic idea limited neither by social class nor by political partisanship.”112

The Southerners’ fiery tempers not infrequently brought them into conflict with classmates and with college rules. Julian Sturtevant of the class of 1826 drily observed: “The atmosphere of a southern plantation was not favorable to the training of youth in the habits of self-government. Southern students often showed that the close relations with the sons of small farmers and mechanics in which they found themselves was very distasteful to them.” John Sherwood of the class of 1839 described how, “one evening in the heat of debate, Henry R. Jackson [Bones 1839, subsequently U.S. minister to Austria and to Mexico and brigadier general in the Confederate Army] sent an inkstand full of ink at the head of his antagonist in debate across the large Hall of the literary society of Brothers in Unity, leaving a black trail of ink behind it and just grazing the head of his opponent.” An apology followed.113

The seniors of Scull and Bone seem to have found the company of Jackson and his kind desirable: between 1833 and 1842, the class years of the first ten delegations, fully 22 percent of the club membership hailed from ten of the eleven states of the South, excluding only Florida, and twenty-seven of these 149 men, almost a fifth, were members of Calliope. Notably, of those thirty-three Southerners among the society members of that decade, only seven were elected to Phi Beta Kappa, which is another indication of how the Southerners were non-scholarly outliers in the student body. In the same years, nine men were chosen from the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—6 percent of the successive clubs’ membership, when the Yale class percentage was short of 5 percent for those same five states. Eleven of these men had not even spent all four years in New Haven, but entered their respective classes as sophomores or even juniors. That pattern persisted: Richard Taylor of Louisiana and the class of 1845, later to be the highest-ranking Yale graduate in the Confederate Army, transferred from Harvard as a junior and was chosen for Bones, as was William Preston Johnston of Kentucky of the class of 1852, to become aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis and then president of Tulane. Johnston was the last man to enter his class, in May 1851 (the third term of his junior year), won the Clark premium for English composition and a Townsend prize, and was elected by the society that very term.114

A simple reason for the prevalence of Southerners in Skull and Bones, a society founded as a club for extemporaneous debate, would seem to be the remarkable tradition of what all Americans characterized as “Southern oratory.” It was an article of faith in the antebellum South that oratory was a key to power. Each crossroads settlement had its debating clubs, and at the University of Virginia there were fully five forensic societies in this period. Patrick Henry was the Southern orator most admired, and his name was revered “on a par with Demosthenes by his Charlottesville votaries,” but examples were many: John Randolph of Virginia, Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun (Yale 1804) and Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina, and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.115 The Southerners at Yale were themselves aware of the distinction and the intellectual difference: Hart Gibson, class of 1855 and Keys, wrote candidly to his father in his senior year: “While our Yankee brethren are unable to rival us in statesmanship and popular oratory, we are far, too far, behind them in polite literature and science.”116

Hayne, United States attorney general in the Monroe administration, governor of South Carolina in 1833, best remembered for his eloquence during the Webster-Hayne debates of 1830, was an orator of speed and dash in the romantic manner, “[s]o filled with passion . . . that at times he seemed almost beside himself, and yet he never for a moment lost control of his words.” The more famous of the Carolina statesmen was John C. Calhoun, who entered Yale as a junior at age twenty, graduated as a member and treasurer of Phi Beta Kappa, then became successively congressman, secretary of war, vice president, and secretary of state. While equally dedicated to the oratorical cult, Calhoun sought instead to persuade in a logical, concise, even terse manner, directing his efforts on the intellectual plane, whereas Hayne aimed at the feelings of his audience.117 Russell and his clubmates and their successors, in electing Southerners, seem to have been seeking to capture both skills in their self-administered lessons in extemporaneous debate.

Given the well-attested differences in temperament between New Englanders and Southerners, and the enforced intimacy of the small membership, the cohesion and endurance of the senior society while yoking the two mindsets in a single delegation was remarkable. No doubt, succeeding classes of young men from the same state would have known each other and urged the election of candidates from their native region: in 1843, Ezekiel Belden of the class of 1844 (who would not have known of the Bones classes before 1840) was to claim that “the principal qualification for admission into this society [of Scull and Bone] is a familiar acquaintance with its members.”118 Nevertheless, the result of deliberately joining together in society membership these young men of two sometimes clashing cultural traditions of North and South—“character” and “honor,” respectively, differences that were to erupt in civil war in only one more generation—had for some a measurable leavening effect. Hugh White Sheffey of Virginia, in the third Bones delegation (class of 1835), was to write in his class history a half century after arriving in Connecticut: “My associations at Yale prevented me from being a mere Virginian—a mere sectional character, and naturalized and liberalized my views and feelings. I never felt bitter toward a northern man.” While he did not here name his senior society—no class member ever did in his essays for the class histories—Sheffey belonged to a Bones club with only one other Southerner, from North Carolina.

For most Southerner collegians, of course, when the Civil War came, love of region overcame all (two members of the Bones club of 1851 fought on opposite sides). Although some 836 Yale students and alumni served in the Union Army—of whom at least one hundred died in service or as a direct result thereof, more than the alumni of any other college in America119—eighty served in the Confederate Army (including eighteen, among them Bonesmen William Gustine Conner ’45 and Henry Laurens Metcalfe ’49, enlisting in Company A of the Jeff Davis Legion of Mississippi), and fifty-five were killed. In the litany of the famous Yale College graduates who were members of Skull and Bones, it is not often noted that these names include the chair of the Louisiana Secession Convention and secretary of the navy of the Confederate States of America (John Perkins, 1840, said to be CSA president Jefferson Davis’s “oldest and best friend” considered for his vice president, aided in the drafting of the secession resolution by Lemuel Parker Conner, 1845, whose brother William Gustine Conner, also 1845 and Bones, was killed fighting for the Confederacy at Gettsyburg); the chair of the Mississippi Secession Convention and CSA congressman who raised a regiment (William T. S. Barry, 1841); one brigadier general in the CSA Army (Henry Rootes Jackson, of the flying inkstand, 1839); and one lieutenant general, the leader of the Army of the Tennessee, the highest-ranking Southern general officer to attend Yale, and Jefferson Davis’s brother-in-law (Richard Taylor, 1845). Also included are three men captured with Davis at war’s end: his private secretary, the chief of his personal staff, and a third man, the head of the Bureau of Foreign Supplies, who had been a Yale valedictorian and president of Calliope.120

Also to be noted are two Scroll and Key graduates who became Confederate major and brigadier generals: Randall Lee Gibson, 1853, William Johnston’s roommate and kinsman, helping him after the war to secure that Tulane presidency, and James Tappan, 1845, recognized at his thirtieth Yale reunion by his classmate, abolitionist and Union brigadier general Henry B. Carrington, as one “who treated surrendered black troops as prisoners of war at a time when such treatment was threatened to be denied.”121 Yale graduates, including the law and graduate schools, accounted for twenty-seven generals (including the surgeon general) for the North, and ten for the South: six of those thirty-three officers were members of Skull and Bones, and five were Scroll and Key men, the two senior societies together accounting together for five of the nine Confederate generals from Yale College.122

There was no general amnesty of high-ranking Confederate officials until announced by President Andrew Johnson at the Democratic Party National Convention in New York City in July 1868 (attended by the Gibson brothers and their cousin William Johnston). Nevertheless, the senior societies took the view that the end of the war permitted and encouraged their prewar fellowship, although that often was not reciprocated in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. James N. Brickell, class of 1845, a native of Columbia, South Carolina (and one of five southerners in his year’s Bones club), who had served as a first lieutenant in the Confederate Army, returned to the 1866 delegation’s secretary his invitation to the annual convention scheduled for July 27, 1865, with this short message: “The events of the last four years having completely severed any connection with the North and every person and thing living in that section, I return the enclosure.”

On the other hand, Bonesmen Thomas Bayne and William Johnston, although both having personally served and then been captured and imprisoned with Jeff Davis, returned to a Yale College commencement for their twentieth reunion in 1867 and were the first combatant Confederates to revisit the college at reunion (Johnston had visited his Bones clubmate Daniel Coit Gilman in New Haven in the early spring of 1866); Alexander Porter Root, 1861 and Bones, returned to his sexennial reunion that same year after service as a CSA cavalry major; and Keys member and CSA Major General Randall Gibson, Keys 1853, returned to New Haven for his fifteenth reunion in 1868. “There has never been a moment since I left Yale,” he said at the luncheon following commencement, “in which my feelings toward my own classmates and the college were not warm and hearty. I look forward to the day when the old flag will wave in harmony over all the land. (Cheers.) Whatever I, for one, can do to inspire among people hopefulness in the future and a faith in the National Government, will be done.”123

Long after the creation of Skull and Bones, and long before the creation of the Yale residential college system in the early 1930s, the fictional Dink Stover before his Bones tap in Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (1912) was to say that the point of college should be “to educate ourselves by knowing opposite lives, fellows who see things as we never have seen them, who are going back to life a thousand miles away from what we lead. . . . We ought to get a great vision, when we come up here, as young men, of the business of our country, of the privilege of fighting out its political freedom, of what American manhood means in the towns of Georgia and Texas . . . We ought really to know one another, meet, discuss, respect each other’s point of view, independence—odd ways if you wish.”124 Russell and Taft (who later embarked for another clubmate’s state of Ohio) and their friends seem to have had this goal consciously in mind in forming their senior society.

A fifth factor which shaped the selection of an incoming club, in addition to the four listed above, whether for Skull and Bones or thereafter Scroll and Key, or for any later senior society, is simply inertia, given that the young men tended to perpetuate themselves in their successors—or as formulated in a negative maxim by an anonymous member of Scroll and Key discussing the election of its crowd for 1844: “The fact is, gentlemen, I have always noticed that if in a Society like this you select one d———d fool, he will be sure to want his representative in the next class, and I am loath to perpetuate the species.”125

High stand in the class was not, however, incompatible with high spirits, which early on were almost fatal to the club’s continued existence. The new senior society was almost immediately offensive to the faculty. On Christmas Eve in 1833 (the regular term was to include that day through 1850), tutor John Radcliffe Davenport, class of 1830 and then studying in the Divinity School, was rudely awakened by the roar of the song and dance at the club’s first anniversary celebration, which continued until the early morning hours. He summoned the faculty, and President Day, Davenport, and others in a squad of tutors ascended to the society’s hall to break up the merriment. On leaving the room, the president was heard to observe, about the floor, that the group seemed to be “a very litter-ary society.”

The faculty then met the next day, Christmas, as its minutes record, to determine punishment for the antics the preceding evening of the “convivial meeting” of the “Society which bears as its insignia the Skull & Bones.” Nine members of the Bones club of 1834, including Yale professor’s son and future Yale treasurer Henry Kingsley, future speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives Eleazar Foster, Linonia president and future United States congressman John Houston, future associate justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court James Lea, and future class poet Churchill Coffing, all received warnings, with letters sent to their parents, and two of the club who had not yet “been matriculated” (been formally admitted as members of the senior class) were advised they would not be, with denial of their degrees, although in time the faculty relented and they graduated with their class.126

Matters could not have been improved a decade later by the transgression of William Davison Hennan of New Orleans, tapped for Bones in the spring of 1841, “senior and valedictorian of his class,” in the words of the faculty minutes, “guilty of immoral and criminal conduct,” who was found “guilty of lawlessness” and expelled in August of 1842, for the crime of fornication (in the eyes of Connecticut, and thus of the clerical faculty’s).127

Faculty hostility remained at a simmer if not a boil, an armistice rather than a peace, and while there were no forced entries into the club after the faculty raid on Christmas Eve in 1833, the club of 1837 determined that a conciliatory gesture needed to be made. They decided to wait upon President Day and the elder Professor Silliman—father of Benjamin Silliman Jr., of the Bones club of 1837, who must have smoothed the way—and ask them to visit their hall as an act of finesse in their outward reformation. The visit went well, and as the years passed and the faculty itself included many graduate members of Skull and Bones, the threat of renewed faculty disfavor faded permanently (at the commencement of 1863, the four new professors named—William Clarke, class of 1843, Chittenden Professor of Divinity; Daniel Coit Gilman, 1852, professor of Physical and Political Geography; Lewis Packard, 1856, assistant professor of Greek Language and Literature; and Cyrus Northrop, 1857, professor of Rhetoric and English Literature—were all members of the society when undergraduates).

The origins of two more pattern-setting choices of the original senior society, practices adopted by every subsequent senior society in imitation, namely the number of members in a class’s club—fifteen—and the weekday night of meeting—Thursday—are not known. Russell and his friends made up, in that fall of 1832, a group of fourteen in the class of 1833 (the black line in place of the name of the eleventh man in the catalogue for that year’s club was to cause a frisson in the neutrals who saw it), and “perpetuated itself,” in the previously quoted phrase of the later class history, by choosing fifteen successors, a number that has attracted no mysterious explanations whatsoever by neutral classmates or outside commentators. As every successive class made up a new club, that number became fixed and expected, and then replicated by all the societies that came after.

Nevertheless, when James Osborne Putnam of the club of 1839, later the U.S. minister to Belgium and subsequently the chancellor of the University of Buffalo, left college well before the end of the school year, his delegation decided for themselves and their successors not to fill any vacancy for school withdrawal or death, for fear of setting “a dangerous precedent.” Moreover, in the club’s early years, the fifteen were neither elected nor admitted at the same time, perhaps explained by election needing to be by unanimous vote of the members in town and present at the meeting. It was decided early on that those passed over were not to be identified to the incoming club, although communication to the graduates of potential candidates’ names was not forbidden, but such information was still meant to be kept confidential.

As for their weekly meetings, after beginning with Friday night meetings for their gatherings, Thursday evening was substituted, “commencing at exactly eight o’clock,” Bagg recorded, “and every acting member is obliged to be in attendance from that time until adjournment, at two or three in the morning. . . . A Bones senior is never seen about New Haven after eight o’clock of a Thursday evening. Nothing but actual sickness ever keeps him from his society, except it be absence from town—and those who have been absent are apt to appear for the first time at Friday morning chapel.”128


In the first decades of their existence, the halls of all secret societies at Yale were necessarily in the city’s commercial buildings since these clubs had no recognition from Yale College, and secrecy as to the place of meeting was considered almost as important as secrecy regarding the club’s nature. Fifteen men could not clearly meet in a dormitory residence, and the new society engaged a single room on the southeastern corner of the third story of a building located on the commercial, non-campus side of Chapel Street, near but not at the corner of College Street. Then numbered 460 Chapel, this structure was nearly opposite South College at the southern end of the Old Brick Row, and to the immediate west of a commercial building named Townsend’s Block (now numbered 1000–1006 Chapel), where the literary society Calliope met in its upper story. The building in which Skull and Bones met housed Linonia, and their room, leased for ten years, could only be reached up the stairs from the Linonian hall, through an ordinary wooden door with an ordinary lock, easily rifled by the curious.

While that room featured a fireplace, and the members added two small closets in due course, the walls were bare, the two rear windows uncurtained, and the floors uncarpeted. One chair with a leaf served the presiding officer—who, not permanent by custom and constitution, changed with every weekly meeting on Thursday nights—facing fourteen common chairs with wooden seats, and a red-cloth-covered table mounted by a skull and crossed femurs.129 The uneven light yielded by tallow candles during debates was obscured by clouds of tobacco smoke produced in consuming Connecticut’s own tobacco. No great care was taken for amenities: only in 1837 did that year’s club appoint a “Spit-Box Committee.”

Something is known of their proceedings from the diary of George Sherman, of the class of 1839, who heard about them from a friend of a friend, one Bill Townsend, who lived near the Bones rooms, and could hear and partially see what went on there. “Last Thursday eve when the new members were introduced,” this double hearsay records, “great ceremonies were performed. One by one they were introduced into the room, where were seated the members dressed in masks. ‘Draw near’ says a hoarse unearthly voice. He approaches. They all point him to human skeletons set up in cases on a kind of shelf, each lifting his finger towards one [and] announces his name, & the last says ‘And this is Rob Roy Macgregor.’ Then with solemn oaths (most horrible, says the young Townsend) the new member swears fidelity to the secrets & to the interest of the society. When the last parts of the ceremony are ended, one person at the close of each utters through a horn 10 or 15 feet in length, a loud unearthly grunt. This instrument he saw as it protruded out of the window, and he has been in the room several times by stealth, before the things were put up, so that he is acquainted with almost everything in it.”130

At the beginning, for a student organization founded as a club for training in extemporaneous debate, the single room was enough. Each member wrote a debate topic on a slip of paper, and all slips were put into one pile; a second pile contained slips with the name of each knight. The meeting leader drew one slip which established the debate topic for the evening. Rejecting it, in favor of an easier or more familiar topic also in the choices for that evening, was seen as undercutting the discipline of learning to speak extemporaneously on any topic. By the 1860s, a more democratic process was employed, and rejected questions were kicked into the fireplace. The names of the members were then drawn, for discussion of the question in the order of the draw. Of course, the true value of the debate was not from the nature of the topic, but from the clash and interplay of fifteen personalities.

All had to speak, and in this, the membership embraced the discipline of Brothers in Unity, which the Linonians had in derision surnamed the “Cider Mill,” because “like such a mill, it moved circle-wise; that is to say, its members were not allowed to debate except in strict rotation, following the order of the catalogue; and in their turn, they must speak, whether they chose to do so or not.” (In Linonia, all debates were voluntary, and thus all speakers, volunteers.) Since the first Bones delegation contained six former presidents of Linonia, the choice of the Brothers’ pattern of compelled speaking is further evidence of their determination that all should be improved because all must participate. The succeeding delegations of the next decade always contained one, and often two, presidents of Brothers, which would have reinforced this discipline.131

The tradition of this senior society’s debating was to resonate outside its hall, through the college’s history. When William Howard Taft of the class of 1878 returned to Yale after leaving the American presidency in 1913 to teach seniors at Yale College and students in the Yale Law School, he coached the college freshmen’s debate team. When the presidential election of 2004 resulted in newspaper reports that candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, two years apart as Bonesmen, had both debated in college, the undergraduates petitioned for the establishment of a course in oratory, which had lapsed with the retirement of Professor Rollin Osterweis, the candidates’ and Yale College’s longtime debate coach and historian of American oratory.132

In due course, the two groups of slips were kept in a skull divided into compartments, known as the “Yorick,” after Hamlet’s jester.133 A five-minute sandglass was used to time the remarks of each member, who was bound to speak for that period when his society name was drawn, until all had spoken. In a Yale Lit. article in 1886, William Crapo, by then a retired member of Congress, where a five-minute rule on bill amendment debates was enacted only in 1847, reflected obliquely on the discipline of his senior society’s sandglass. “The member of Congress who rises in his place and reads from a roll of manuscript,” he noted, “although his written speech may be logical in argument, strong in statement, and fruitful with statistics, convinces no one, for his fellow members, as a rule, will not listen to it. But in the debate under the ‘five minute rule,’ which must of necessity be extemporaneous, and which is direct and earnest, terse and vigorous, aggressive and critical, persuasive and conciliatory, every one listens, for it is in the debate that opinions are formed and changed, votes controlled and legislation perfected.”134 Notes were taken for the club’s annual Black Book, the permanent record of its Thursday night meetings for the college year, begun to be kept only after a few meetings, when it was recognized in late January 1833 that “transactions of the club became not infrequent, highly momentous & interesting.” The first recorded debate question was, “Is the assassination of a tyrant in any case justifiable?”135

As early as the fall term of 1835, the size of the accommodation and the relative lack of security caused the club of that year to consider acquiring a new meeting place, a search accelerated when two attempted entries were made by neutrals, and a new large lock was procured. Further security measures included the addition, by the club of 1838, of a door at the foot of the stairs leading from Linonia’s hall, and then replacement of that by an iron door—the first of many iron doors in the history of Yale senior societies—which was installed by the club of 1842. Visible to everyone entering the hall of the Linonian Society below, this was a constant and powerful reminder of the existence of the Order of Skull and Bones, and its members in 1845 began referring merrily to their club’s two rooms as “Skeleton Hall.”

Another needful addition was a servant, first employed by the club of 1837, one “John Creed, L.L.” (lamp-lighter). Creed, a native of the Virgin Islands, arriving in New Haven about 1820, had performed janitorial work for the Calliopean Society and was to organize the society’s dinners as the weekly repasts became more elaborate. He attended conventions of Free People of Color in New York City and Philadelphia as a representative from Connecticut, was the New Haven agent of William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, and founded a catering and ice cream manufacturing business continued by his younger son; his elder son was the first black graduate of the Medical Department of Yale College, carrying on his practice from his father’s home on West Chapel Street. John Creed and his sixteen-year-old son Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, who took over the caretaker’s role when his father went to California in 1849, were both made members of the society through initiation. In New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery, the simple obelisk above Creed’s gravesite reads: John W. Creed | S.B.T.136

In the club’s early years, once the debate was finished, the meetings ended at an early hour, but by the 1840s the members had oysters, pies, and waffles delivered to their meeting room, or went to a neighboring restaurant, and liquor was not then forbidden, which led to the club’s reputation, as noted by Bagg, of bring a “convivial club.”137 Attempting to reconcile the continuance of refreshments with the intellectual life of the club, a committee appointed in November 1840 recommended that the debate continue for ninety minutes, then “sociality” (oysters and coffee) for a similar period, with debate renewed thereafter until the close of meeting. When the society migrated to its new, permanent hall in 1856, spirituous liquors were forever banned from the tomb.


Nevertheless, the society’s run of success was more fragile than it appeared, since it could be changed in the results of one spring’s election. When Skull and Bones was founded in 1832, there were no fraternities in the lower classes, but in 1836, Alpha Delta Phi, or “A.D.” as it came to be known, originating at Hamilton College in 1832, established a chapter in Yale College. Two years later Psi Upsilon, or “Psi U,” founded at Union College in 1833, followed suit by starting a chapter in New Haven, only its third, by a member of the class of 1841, William Erigena Robinson, who was initiated while on a visit to Union during his sophomore year. Few American colleges were left untouched by this movement, which so aptly characterized the enterprise and initiative of the nineteenth-century college undergraduate.138

Edwin Griffin Bartlett, a member of the class and Scroll and Key club of 1846 (and before that a cofounder of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale in 1844) was to remember the two junior societies as formidable organizations. “Their main object,” he wrote, “was to associate groups of students high in college standing, skillful in college politics, who should mutually cooperate to increase the share of honors which should fall to each, while another scarcely secondary aim was in secret meeting to enjoy private drill in oratory and composition—preparatory to the exercises of the open literary societies. Their aims were practical, their methods businesslike. They claimed, too, to make their elections strictly in consideration of the character, as scholars and gentlemen, of the members of the class from which they were made, and that such elections, therefore, were a tribute to the high scholarship and character of the best men in such class. And while others might have differed with them as to their application of their avowed rule, it became to be considered in each Sophomore class that the leaders in scholarship and gentlemanly qualities had a right to, and might expect, an election.”139 That same sense of expectation of election naturally carried over to the next rung in the class hierarchy as the juniors, now elected to A.D. or Psi U, looked forward to the senior society experience.

This also meant that from the junior class to which elections were being offered by Skull and Bones, candidates would have memberships in and loyalties to their classmates in A.D. or Psi U which preceded any immediate concern for the senior society. The great strength of a senior society club is that its core is concentrated horizontally in one class, but since, unlike a fraternity, there are no vertical, lower-class years of membership, that horizontal strength is not created until the year’s club is created. In the five years which followed A.D.’s founding in New Haven, Bones recruited thirty-four of its members from this society, and only four from Psi U, perhaps reflecting A.D.’s reputation at Yale and nationally as decidedly literary.140

Ironically, Alpha Delta Phi had originally been brought to Yale to spite Bones. Frederick A. Coe had transferred from Union College to Yale and was disappointed in not receiving an offer of membership in the New Haven senior society in the spring of 1836. His response was to initiate the founding of a chapter of A.D. at Yale in which members of the class of 1838 were admitted at the start of their junior year, with the notion that their new fraternity membership would continue through the end of their senior year, thus denying their availability to the older society through pledge or expectation that they would refuse election there. The plan was encouraged by Chauncey Goodrich, professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a personal foe of Skull and Bones who had previously reported to the faculty his discovery of a “demijohn” of spirituous liquor in the society’s clubroom. (If Bones was an early version of National Lampoon’s Animal House in the motion picture of that name at the mythical Faber College, Goodrich was its Dean Wormer.)

The scheme was thwarted when the ever-resourceful Bones delegation of 1837—the spectacular one boasting William Maxwell Evarts, Benjamin Silliman Jr., and Morrison Waite as members—elected seven members of the class of 1838 who were among the lower class A.D. membership behind Coe’s group. These included Tennessean William Fleming (being tutored in mathematics by William Huntington Russell), the Brazilian Carlos Fernando Ribeiro, Joseph Parrish Thompson (later the renowned pastor of the Broadway Tabernacle of New York City), and William Pitt Lynde (thereafter congressman from Wisconsin and mayor of Milwaukee), and they were initiated as early as March 2. When the normal election day for the standard fifteen came round, the A.D. seven were revealed as members of the new Bones club. Alpha Delta Phi, after a little further struggling, retreated back into the junior year.

That initially successful strategy, however, had blowback. Once Psi Upsilon appeared on campus alongside A.D. in 1838, the strains produced by the competition of two junior fraternities not in existence when Bones was begun, each insisting that their “crowd” dominate in the next class year’s social pinnacle, became a significant factor in election season, and would almost certainly have eventually fractured the senior society monopoly of Skull and Bones.

That it did so in 1842 was the consequence of the family dynamics of two sets of brothers. The first was John Hunter Robb of the class of 1843 and his younger brother James Madison Robb of the class of 1844, from Philadelphia; the second was the elder Robb’s classmate William Kingsley and his older brother Henry of the class of 1834, of New Haven and the first club chosen from the junior class for Bones. A fraternity political squabble born of brotherly love, when later joined to the second brothers’ sibling rivalry, had enormous consequences: the founding of a rival senior society, Scroll and Key, and the immediate collapse of the campus prestige of Skull and Bones.


William Huntington Russell



Alphonso Taft


minister to Austria


minister to Russia


U.S. attorney general


U.S. secretary of war


Alumni Fellow, Yale Corp.

James Wallace Houston


U.S. Congress (Del.)

Henry C. Kingsley


Yale treasurer

James Lea


assoc. justice, Superior Court (La.)

John H. Tweedy


U.S. Congress (Wisc.)

William M. Washington


U.S. Congress (N.C.)

John Seeley


U.S. Congress (N.Y.)

Thomas Thacher


professor of Latin, Yale

Henry C. Deming


U.S. Congress (Conn.)


collector, Internal Revenue

William S. Pierson


brigadier general, U.S. Army

Thomas Wills Day


editor, Hartford Courant

William Maxwell Evarts


U.S. attorney general


President Johnson’s impeachment defense counsel


U.S. secretary of state


Alumni Fellow, Yale Corp.


second president, Yale Alumni Association of New York (Yale Club)


U.S. senator (N.Y.)

Chester S. Lyman


Yale professor Physics, Astronomy

Ferdinand Owen


U.S. Congress (Ga.)


U.S. consul, Havana

Benjamin Silliman Jr.


Yale professor of Chemistry


author, first college chemistry text


first oil geologist

Morrison Waite


chief justice, U.S. Supreme Court

Charles J. Lynde


U.S. Congress (Wisc.)

Richard D. Hubbard


U.S. Congress (Conn.)


governor (Conn.)

Henry Rootes Jackson


U.S. district attorney (Ga.)


U.S. minister to Austria


brigadier general, CSA


U.S. minister to Mexico

James Osborne Putnam


U.S. minister to Belgium


chancellor, University of Buffalo

Charles Stillé


provost, University of Pennsylvania

Curtis Burnham


U.S. assistant treasurer

William Chauvenet


professor of Mathematics, Annapolis


chancellor, Washington University

James M. Hoppin


Yale professor of Homiletics, Art

Joseph G. Hoyt


chancellor, Washington University

John Perkins Jr.


U.S. Congress (La.)


Louisiana Secession Convention chairman


Confederate secretary of navy

George Richards


trustee, Yale Corp.

William T. S. Barry


U.S. Congress (Miss.)


Miss. Secession Convention chairman


Confederate Congress


colonel, own regiment, CSA

David I. Field


U.S. assistant secretary of treasury

William Law Learned


presiding justice, N.Y. Supreme Court

Donald G. Mitchell


author, humorist


U.S. consul, Venice

Richard Storrs Willis


compiler, first American college songbook


Yale professor of Music

Joseph Benton


president, Pacific Theological Seminary

John A. Peters


U.S. Congress (Me.)


chief justice, Supreme Court (Me.)

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